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Lebanon's civil war scars re-emerge with assassination case verdict

The sentencing of two men accused of assassinating former Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel in 1982 has become politicized as questions are raised about its timing.

On Oct. 20, Lebanon’s highest court issued a landmark ruling, sentencing two members of the local Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) to death. The verdict marks the end of a decadeslong case that prosecuted Habib Shartouni for the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel during the country’s civil war. For some Lebanese, the sentence provided a sense of justice, while others suspect that political motivations were behind the ruling.

Gemayel, who was a prominent leader within the predominantly Maronite Catholic Kataeb (Phalange) Party, has been a highly revered figure by Christians both inside the party and out. Shortly after his election in 1982, he had agreed to discuss the normalization of diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Israel, which was opposed by several leftist groups in the country. In response, Shartouni planted a bomb outside the Kataeb headquarters on Sept. 14, 1982, killing Gemayel and at least 32 others.

Following the bombing, Shartouni was arrested and imprisoned for eight years without trial. He escaped during a Syrian military offensive. Although his current whereabouts are unknown, he had spent several years in hiding in Damascus, which has backed the SSNP. Shartouni was tried in absentia along with Nabil al-Alam, who was accused of masterminding the bombing. Some believe Alam is already deceased.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, member of parliament Nadim Gemayel, Bashir’s son, hailed the trial as a victory of transitional justice, which could deter similar attacks in the future. “This judgment is very significant, not only for me and my family and our son, or the daughter or wife of Bashir Gemayel who was assassinated. It is very important for all the country and for the state of law of Lebanon since none of all the terrorist attacks that happened in Lebanon in the last 40 years, none of them have been judged or elucidated. So it is very important for us to know that, in Lebanon, justice can prevail,” said Gemayel.

Yet the sentencing has exposed political divisions across the country, as many leftists regard Shartouni with the estimable stardom that Lebanese Christians confer upon Gemayel. For supporters, Shartouni is perceived as a defender of Lebanon amid fears that Gemayel would have consented to wider Israeli influence in the country. Accordingly, the issue has proved controversial as members of both Kataeb and the SSNP rallied in front of the court during the recent proceedings. The past week has seen a flurry of heated social media activity surrounding the case.

The sudden closure of the 35-year trial has also raised questions regarding the timing of the verdict and whether it is meant to serve larger political goals. Since 2016, the Kataeb Party has been largely excluded from the government, due in part to the reconciliation of Gen. Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and another Christian party known as the Lebanese Forces. Later, when Saad Hariri’s Sunni Future Movement backed Aoun’s presidential candidacy — leading to Aoun’s election Oct. 31, 2016 — the Kataeb lost out on ministerial posts.

Khalil Khairallah, who serves as the SSNP’s dean of culture, told Al-Monitor that the trial was resurfaced to serve political aspirations ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections. “For example, the Kataeb, the Lebanese Forces and President Aoun’s party all want to make the election with a big front. For me, [there is] only that purpose.”

“There were many, many massacres in Lebanon. Some of the actors of these massacres are still alive now. Why can’t we judge them?” mused Khairallah. “Why only Habib Shartouni, and why now? Because this sentence had the chance to unify these parties in the coming elections.” The suspected formation of a new Christian political alliance was also echoed by Shartouni himself in an interview on Oct. 19 with Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese media outlet. It is unclear, however, if the interview was done in person.

Imad Salamey, the director of the Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution at the Lebanese American University, told Al-Monitor that Shartouni’s sentencing may affect dynamics among the Christian parties of the March 14 political bloc that opposed Iranian and Syrian interventionism in Lebanon.

“[The verdict] indicates first of all that Christian parties, particularly those on the March 14 side, are trying to seek some kind of justice in their favor. It also signals a new alignment between those who accused Bashir Gemayel of being a collaborator, an Israeli collaborator, and those who really … [saw him as] president of the country,” explained Salamey. “So we have witnessed in the past week a renewal of old rhetoric that perhaps impacted political alignment in the country, particularly Christian-Christian alignment whereby the FPM kept silent about the verdict compared to other March 14 Christian parties.”

In 2006, the FPM forged an alliance with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which is thought to be collaborating with the SSNP in supporting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. The FPM has not publicly celebrated Shartouni’s sentencing with the pomp of other Christian parties, although FPM minister Gebran Bassil did attend a commemoration ceremony for Gemayel following the trial.

Mohanad Hage Ali, the director of communications at the Carnegie Middle East Center, has been closely monitoring developments among Christian parties in Lebanon. According to him, the FPM may have more to gain from Shartouni’s trial than the Kataeb Party. “Everyone is trying to score before the elections,” Hage Ali told Al-Monitor. “I think my assessment is, it works well for the Lebanese Forces and for the FPM, but especially so for the FPM, as they are saying, ‘Look at us, we are in power and we are doing what the Christians really want, so Bashir’s killers will not get away with it as they used to before we were here.’ So it is a different vibe; they are telling Christians that ‘things are different now,’ and I think they will fare well in the elections.”

However, Salamey contended that issuing the death sentence prior to the elections primarily helps mobilize the Kataeb’s base of support, despite their exclusion from government. “It definitely signals a boost for the Kataeb Party among the Christian constituency. It boosts their positions on the eve of the elections, but you know, I think the electorate in Lebanon is pretty solidly being entrenched behind particular leaders and political parties. So [the trial] has some morale boost, but it does not have significant influence on electoral outcomes.”

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