Warlord gets life, but plans his vacation

Lebanon/ murder trial

Robert Fisk
Saturday 24 June 1995 23:02 BST

NOT A FLICKER of emotion crossed Sethrida Geagea's face. In her immaculately pressed white trouser suit, a huge gold crucifix hanging round her well-tanned neck, she looked as if she already knew her husband's death sentence would be commuted. "Samir Geagea, guilty of the murder of Dany Chamoun," Judge Philippe Khairallah announced. "Sentenced to death, commuted to imprisonment for life with hard labour."

But there could not have been many in court who believed that the 42- year-old ex-militia leader - one of Lebanon's bloodiest civil war rogues - would be in jail for long. Sethrida had already told the press the couple had bought a holiday home in Alsace for their future family.

Samir Geagea's own reaction was not available for viewing in the second- floor courtroom of the Lebanese Palace of Justice. He was still in his basement cell at the Ministry of Defence, much to the anger of his lawyer, Edmund Naim. "This is the law - that they should be here," Naim shouted as Judge Khairallah brought down his gavel. "Today you have to listen - nobody is allowed to say anything," the judge shouted back.

And listen they did, Sethrida Geagea and the families of the militia leader and his victims - Dany Chamoun, his wife Ingrid and their two sons, shot down in their Beirut home on 21 October, 1990 - for three long hours.

Judge Khairallah and four other judges took turns reading the volume of evidence against Geagea and six other men, all but one of whom was being tried in absentia: of how Geagea had turned against fellow Maronite Dany Chamoun, leader of the National Liberal Party, in order to secure the sole leadership of Christian Lebanon; of how he told two of his Phalange militia henchmen to murder Chamoun; and of how, in one judge's words, "It was his habit to eliminate political opponents by assassinating them." Indeed it was.

Suleiman Franjieh's son Tony was murdered almost two decades ago - with his wife and baby - by Geagea's men, andafter Geagea took over leadership of the Phalangist militia, one of Israel's allies in Lebanon, he was among the bloodiest of warlords. His artillerymen shelled Sidon in 1985 and then retreated, leaving the Christian residents to their fate. In 1990, his men coolly murdered army officers who opposed the Phalange, one of them in his bed as his wife lay badly wounded beside him.

But if Geagea was guilty - which his supporters continued to dispute last night - there were inevitable questions to be asked about the judgment.

How come, for example, that although Geagea was on trial, three other former wartime militia leaders are ministers in the Lebanese government? The court verdict tried to answer this question: because the amnesty for civil war crimes expired when the civil war officially ended, a week before Chamoun's murder.

But Geagea's supporters claimed he had been tried and convicted because he had refused to participate in the Syrian-dominated government and was seen as a Christian leader who would oppose Syrian plans for Lebanon. Certainly, the security authorities, who had 27 armed soldiers in the courtroom yesterday and troops on the roof, were worried about an explosion in the Christian areas of Beirut; armoured personnel carriers were positioned around the largely Maronite districts in the east of the city.

Much of the evidence rested on a two-way radio left behind by the killers at Chamoun's apartment, a radio which had earlier been stolen by the Phalange from an army unit at a helicopter base north of Beirut. And much of it rested on what might be called surmise. The judges recalled Fouad Malek, Geagea's former "chief of staff", had "confirmed that something like the assassination of Dany Chamoun could not be carried out without the full knowledge of Samir Geagea". And "Geagea ... can be called the sole beneficiary of this assassination".

Geagea was found not guilty of the murder of Ingrid Chamoun and her two children on the rather odd grounds that he had never ordered their deaths. The six other defendants were also condemned to death, the sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

Geagea awaits a second verdict on charges that he ordered the bombing of a church last year in which 11 Maronites were killed. That, too, could mean the death penalty. However, he remains unrepentant. "I will leave prison as I entered it - as a result of a political decision," he is reported to have told his wife during a prison visit. Sethrida has told the Lebanese press that "all we are interested in now is going away and starting a family." They may yet get their wish.

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