Lebanon ex-warlord freed after 11 years

/ Source: The Associated Press

A notorious anti-Syrian Christian warlord was released Tuesday after 11 years in prison, the latest reconciliatory step in civil war-scarred Lebanon after the recent collapse of Syria’s military dominance.

Samir Geagea, 53, left his Defense Ministry cell in Beirut and soldiers escorted him straight to Lebanon’s international airport where he met with Lebanese Forces supporters, a senior Lebanese security officer told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the government had not officially commented on his release.

Antoinette Geagea, spokeswoman for the banned Christian Lebanese Forces militia which Geagea headed during the 1975-90 civil war, told The AP that her relative was freed Tuesday morning.

An Associated Press photographer at Lebanon’s international airport said he briefly saw Geagea and his wife, Setrida, in footage provided by the Lebanese Forces on a television screen.

A grinning Geagea, wearing a blue shirt and appearing skinny with slightly graying hair, was seen shaking hands and embracing applauding supporters while asking about Lebanese Forces members before the transmission was cut.

Outside, scores of his disbanded militia supporters cheered, danced and waved Lebanese flags in celebration.

Geagea was also scheduled to meet at the airport with around 300 politicians and deliver a televised speech before leaving Lebanon to an unspecified destination in Europe for a medical checkup.

Aiming toward national reconciliation
On July 18, Lebanon’s newly elected parliament approved a motion to pardon Geagea, who had been serving a life term since April 1994 for killing a former Lebanese prime minister and has spent most of the past 11 years in solitary confinement in an underground Defense Ministry cell with no access to news.

The motion was endorsed by pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud the next day, ensuring Geagea’s freedom, but he remained in prison for security reasons until preparations for his travel were completed.

Some 100 lawmakers of the 128-member Parliament voted to pardon Geagea, apparently in the spirit of national reconciliation following Syria’s April military withdrawal, ending Syria’s 29-year military presence and domination of Lebanon.

Geagea was the only prominent former warlord to remain jailed for opposing Syrian dominance. Other ex-militia leaders benefited from a 1991 general amnesty for crimes committed during the civil war.

Druse, Muslim and Palestinian forces were all targeted by Geagea, who allied his men with the Israelis in the central mountain region during the Jewish state’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Geagea has been linked with some of Lebanon’s most notorious civil war-era killings, including the 1987 bombing of a military helicopter that killed the pro-Syrian Prime Minister Rashid Karami and the slaying of Danny Chamoun, a prominent Christian politician.

He was arrested in 1994 and his group was outlawed after a church bombing killed 10 people. He was later acquitted of the bombing but sentenced to three life terms on several other murder counts, including the killings of Karami and Chamoun.

On Thursday, Iranian state-run television reported that Iran plans to file a lawsuit against Geagea over the kidnapping of four Iranian diplomats in Beirut in 1982.

Syrian influence over Lebanese politics had stymied past attempts to secure his pardon and the return of former Lebanese army commander Gen. Michel Aoun from 14 years of exile in France.

But Aoun returned May 7, less than two weeks after Syria withdrew its troop under U.S.-led pressure sparked by the Feb. 14 assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri.