Monday, April 29, 2013

Hezbollah critic to fight "revenge trial"

[Originally posted at NOW]

After nearly three years of detention by Syrian and Lebanese authorities, a Shiite cleric has been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on charges of collaboration with Israel – charges that activists and his lawyer say were fabricated in a bid to silence the cleric’s criticism of Hezbollah. The verdict, handed down by the Lebanese Military Tribunal on April 15, is set to be appealed.

Sheikh Hassan Mshaymish was first arrested in Syria in July 2010 on undisclosed charges. The Syrian government’s official silence on his continued detention prompted criticism from Amnesty International, and his family alleges he was tortured during this period. He was transferred to the Lebanese authorities in October 2011, after which he was formally accused of collaboration with Israel, a crime under Article 278 of the Lebanese penal code.

Mshaymish had in fact been a member of Hezbollah until the late 1990s, after which he became an outspoken critic of the party and its ideological adherence to wilayat al-faqih, the authoritarian system of religious government pioneered by the late Iranian Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As NOW has previously reported, a number of prominent Lebanese Shiite critics of Hezbollah have long maintained that it was these open attacks on the powerful Syrian ally – typically expressed in his monthly publication Difaf (“the riverbanks”) – rather than any dealings with Israel that led to Mshaymish’s arrest.

As is typical of cases handled by the military tribunal, no information pertaining to the trial has officially been made public. However, a legal source involved with the case who requested anonymity due to its sensitivity told NOW the evidence presented by the prosecution chiefly comprised telephone records purporting to show calls made by Mshaymish to Israelis. Mshaymish’s lawyer, Antoine Nehme, alleges these records were falsified, and claims to possess originals proving as much that were ignored by the court.

In addition, the legal source told NOW the prosecution had pointed to a meeting Mshaymish had in Germany in 2005 with an individual whom he suspected of working for “an intelligence apparatus seeking to collect information about Hezbollah.” Mshaymish himself informed Hezbollah of the meeting upon his return to Lebanon. In court, says the source, Nehme argued this meeting failed to violate Lebanese law; first because the man Mshaymish met was German, not Israeli, and second because Article 278 pertains only to divulging information about the Lebanese government, not a party such as Hezbollah.

Adding to these question marks is the comparative lightness of the sentence, which some commentators have interpreted as further evidence of the dubiousness of the charges. (Collaboration with Israel carries a maximum sentence of death.)

“Is it logical that his sentence is only five years for cooperating with the enemy?” asked Ali al-Amin, al-Balad journalist and a fellow Shiite critic of Hezbollah who has campaigned for Mshaymish’s release.

“This trial is political, it’s not based on any evidence. It is a revenge trial, to punish Sheikh Mshaymish for his stand against Hezbollah,” Amin told NOW.

Similar sentiment was expressed by Lokman Slim, another Shiite supporter of Mshaymish who has raised awareness of his case through his “Hayya Bina” NGO.

“For someone collaborating with Israel, five years is not exactly the heaviest sentence he could receive,” Slim told NOW. “So for me the philosophy of such a sentence is that it achieves a moral assassination of Mshaymish. It’s neutralizing and killing the man symbolically, a kind of murder without blood.”

Looking ahead, Mshaymish still has a chance of clearing his name with a successful appeal. The legal source told NOW that Nehme, the defense lawyer, is confident of overturning the verdict.

Yet Slim told NOW the appeal, even if successful, would likely take a long time, adding to the two years and nine months of detention Mshaymish has already undergone.

“The appeal could take years. Given he’s already served nearly three years in prison, he could end up serving the full five years with his appeal still in process.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

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