Glitz fails to hide the real Lebanon

Robert Fisk in Beirut tries to reconcile a tourist drive with public executions

Robert Fisk@indyvoices
Wednesday 20 May 1998 23:02

TWO policemen called to see my landlord the other day and told him to repair and paint the facade of his apartment block. He could pay for it himself, they said, or let the government do the job and send him the bill.

Mustafa, who knows the law, grudgingly accepted his new duties. The government of Beirut wants to spruce up the seafront corniche. The new Lebanon has to look smart, clean, modern and into the future - especially for all the tourists who are supposed to be flooding back.

Just up the coast from my home this week, however, the same government was projecting a somewhat different image for foreign visitors - by stringing up two convicted murderers in front of a crowd which watched in awe as one of the condemned men wriggled desperately on the noose for two minutes before dying.

What, one wondered, was this awful scene supposed to say about Lebanon? In a land where tourists can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon, are they supposed to take in a public hanging before breakfast?

Indeed, many of those who came to gawp at the last moments of Wissam Issa and Hassan Jabal were heading home from night clubs when they caught sight of the crowds at Tabarja and finished their evening watching Issa - swooning in fear and weeping uncontrollably - being dragged to the gallows.

On the orders of President Hrawi, their death sentences for the murder of Charbel Sakim and his sister Marie Amm during a domestic robbery in 1995 were carried out in public "to set an example".

The "example" included hooded executioners, one of whom had to tighten the noose around the necks of the young men - they were 24 and 25 years old - when they continued to gasp for breath two minutes after their hanging commenced.

Now the Lebanese President is a very interesting man. Earlier this year, he was demanding a civil society in Lebanon and civil marriage, a pointedly liberal step which flushed out all the sinister resentment of Muslim and Christian clerics who saw their sectarian power endangered. But the plain people of Lebanon loved Hrawi for it.

Two elderly and very conservative Shiite Muslim sisters - daughters of an Islamic scholar - told me they fully supported what Hrawi, a Christian, was doing. "It is the best thing any president has done for us," the younger sister said then.

On Tuesday she was on the phone in fury. "Are they mad, this government?" she asked. "Do they want us to look like animals in the eyes of the world?"

Lebanon's previous 12 post-war executions have been carried out in prisons, so the public did not have to witness the botched hanging of a man in Sidon when policemen had to pull his feet to strangle him after the gallows broke.

Nor did they have to see the coup de grace to a still living man who had already been shot by a firing squad at Roumieh prison. Both were convicted murderers although the killing of Charbel Sakim was unpremeditated and one of the men publicly hanged at Tabarja - Hassan Jabal - had been outside the house when his friend panicked and shot dead Charbel and Marie during the robbery.

Nor could it have escaped the attention of the crowd at the Tabarja hangings that at least two - or let us be frank and say three - members of President Hrawi's government have blood on their hands, in one case the blood of up to 2,000 men, women and children.

But that, of course, was during the 1975-90 civil war. Today they wear smart suits and ties and drive in limousines with bodyguards. Wissam Issa and Hassan Jamal were uneducated, poor and single. Issa was given five minutes to say goodbye to his parents; he wrote a last note asking them to educate his younger brothers.

The finest report of the Tabarja horror was by a reporter on Lebanon's English-language L'Orient Le Jour newspaper, Scarlett Haddad. Ignoring the appeals of Amnesty and other human rights groups, she said, her country was breaking execution records, "as if that was enough to give its institutions credibility".

I suggested to Lebanese friends on Tuesday that although people here generally support capital punishment, there was a sickness in human beings which drew them to watch publicly-inflicted violence.

I reminded them that George Bernard Shaw once said that if Christians were thrown to the lions in the Royal Albert Hall, there would be packed houses every night. They agreed. "I don't want my country to be represented by a noose," one of them said. "I want it to be a place of beauty."

Which was the ambition of the two policemen who told my landlord to clean up his act and paint the house. Why, now the government is going to plant flowers and bushes down the corniche below my balcony and sew fresh grass on the central reservation? Who knows, just to strike a balance, they might even erect a gallows or two on the seafront?

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