Friday, April 25, 2014

Sudden prisoner releases raise suspicions

[Originally posted at NOW]

Some activists allege clandestine political bargain behind the abrupt release of two anti-Hezbollah Shiite clerics with a pro-Hezbollah businessman.

The unexpected release of three high-profile, Hezbollah-linked Lebanese prisoners in the last few weeks has drawn accusations from some activists of political interference in the judiciary.

The three convicts – businessman Saleh Ezzedine and Shiite clerics Sheikh Hassan Mshaymish and Sayyid Muhammad Ali al-Husseini – had officially been serving time for unrelated crimes: financial fraud in Ezzedine’s case, collaboration with Israel in the others’. Yet all were released almost simultaneously, before the ends of their sentences, with the bail amounts in Mshaymish’s and Ezzedine’s cases both being 5,000,000LL ($3,333). The similarities have led some to argue an under-the-table political agreement forced the judges’ hands.

“Obviously there was a kind of deal, which [stipulated] that all three, coming let’s say from two different parts of the political spectrum, were released,” said Lokman Slim, an activist who has long campaigned for the release of Mshaymish and Husseini, whom he argues were imprisoned on false charges at the behest of Hezbollah, to which the clerics are vocally opposed. NOW was unable to obtain comment, at the time of writing, from the courts responsible for the men’s release.

In Slim’s view, the alleged political deal is a result of broader efforts to calm tensions between the various regional actors that wield influence in Lebanon.

“The timing is interesting […] because at least in the cases of Mshaymish and Husseini, the release could have happened several months ago,” he told NOW. “I think it’s very simple to explain. All of them were ‘caught’ [during] the Saudi-Syrian rupture, or divorce. So now that we’re seeing a new honeymoon between, on the one hand, Hezbollah, and on the other, its opponent. It’s a way to get rid of these files which are no longer useful.”

Moreover, the alleged deal represents a net gain for Hezbollah, Slim argues.

“If the price of releasing Ezzedine is only the release of Mshaymish and Husseini, it’s a cheap price.”

Indeed, Ali al-Amin, another longtime campaigner for Mshaymish’s release, told NOW any political strings that were pulled would have been on Ezzedine’s behalf, rather than the clerics’.

“Ezzedine has people he can reach out to. Mshaymish didn’t even get the smallest of his rights.”

Husseini, for his part, agrees his case was politically motivated from start to finish, though he distanced himself from Mshaymish, whom he accused of striking a bargain with Hezbollah to obtain his release.

“I was arrested because of political issues, and I think I was released for the same reasons as well,” Husseini told NOW. “The investigating judge, Riad Abu Ghaida at the military court, decided to stop the trial because [there was no evidence] I cooperated with Israel.”

Instead, Husseini believes, it was his courting of Iranian opposition groups, including the Mujahidin-e Khalq (MEK) organization banned in Iran, that led to his being framed. Iran is the principal state sponsor of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

“All I did was create an opposition within the Shiite community […] against wilayat al-faqih [a religious and political ideology shared by Hezbollah and the Iranian state],” said Husseini. “I communicated with Iranian opposition Shiites and the MEK, and that was the [reason]. It is in Iran, not in Lebanon or Israel.”

Another aggravating factor was his opposing Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, he claimed.

“I also said that Syrian people have a right to determine their politics regarding Bashar al-Assad and we should not interfere in this,” he told NOW. “These three issues – my dealings with Iranian opposition in general, with the MEK in particular, and what I said about Syria – were the reason behind my detention.”

NOW was unable to reach Mshaymish or Ezzedine, or their lawyers, though Mshaymish’s lawyer has previously told NOW that all charges of collaboration made against his client were based on falsified documents. The charges made against Ezzedine, by contrast, have never been disputed.

While corruption at almost all levels of Lebanese state institutions is a poorly-kept secret, specific allegations such as Slim’s are all but impossible to verify. Lawyer and legal expert Marwan Sakr told NOW he found the claims “far-fetched,” adding that it was not uncommon for judges to request the same bail amounts for separate crimes. But with military court proceedings being secretive by nature, few people besides the judges themselves will ever know the facts with certainty.

Who they are

Sheikh Hassan Mshaymish: A Shiite cleric and former member of Hezbollah until the late 1990s, Mshaymish subsequently became an outspoken critic of the party and its wilayat al-faqih ideology. In 2010, he was arrested in Syria on undisclosed charges, a detention criticized by human rights groups including Amnesty International. He was transferred to Lebanon in 2011 and sentenced in 2013 to five years’ imprisonment for collaboration with Israel. He was released in April 2014 for a bail of 5,000,000LL ($3,333).

Saleh Ezzedine: A once highly-regarded Lebanese businessman on warm terms with Hezbollah, Ezzedine became nicknamed “The Lebanese Madoff” after he was found in 2009 to have defrauded investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars through ostensible investment funds that were, in reality, little more than Ponzi schemes. Among his victims were several senior Hezbollah officials. Detained since 2009, he was released in April 2014 for a bail of 5,000,000LL ($3,333).

Sayyid Muhammad Ali al-Husseini: A Shiite cleric who, like Mshaymish, was once a Hezbollah member and even claims to have been a personal friend of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, Husseini turned against the Party in the mid-2000s. Details of his earlier life are murky, though he was reportedly once jailed in Iran. In 2007, he claimed he was the victim of an assassination attempt at the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Tyre. Then, in 2009, he told NOW he had formed an independent militia, the Arab Islamic Resistance, to rival Hezbollah in fighting Israel. His open courting of the Iranian opposition Mujahidin-e Khalq (MEK) group was, he claimed to NOW, the real reason behind his jailing in 2011 on charges of collaborating with Israel. He was released in 2014.

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

No comments:

Post a Comment