Assir faces death penalty, aimed to establish Free Lebanese Army

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Ahmad al-Assir. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Saturday, March 1, 2014

Military Judge Riad Abu Ghida recommended on Friday the death penalty for Salafist cleric Ahmad al-Assir, former singer Fadel Shaker, and 55 others over the Abra clashes in southern Lebanon.

The indictment includes statements by suspects arrested in connection to the events as well as details about the Abra clashes that shed light on the roles al-Assir and Shaker played.

On June 23, 2013, a Lebanese army checkpoint stopped two of al-Assir’s supporters. After an altercation with the officers, they were both taken to Brigade 14 command headquarters in Salhieh. News of the arrest angered al-Assir who ordered an armed group led by Ahmad al-Hariri and Sheikh Youssef Hneineh to remove the checkpoint.

Starting with this incident, the indictment recounts the Abra events based on statements by people arrested in connection to the case. According to the report, after the group reached the checkpoint, Ahmad al-Hariri told the commanding officer “you have to remove the checkpoint,” so the officer asked him to “step away.” Al-Hariri didn’t comply and started yelling at the officer, at which point militants opened fire, killing two officers and hurting another. The army retaliated and later Mahmoud al-Nakouzi (a.k.a Abu Hamze) launched a missile at an army tank, destroying it and killing all soldiers on board. This in turn began the beginning of the Abra clashes between the army and al-Assir's group.

The commander's of al-Assir's group sent text messages to his supporters with the code word “TAMER”, meaning that they should immediately join the fighting. They took their positions and began sniper operations while blocking roads in Saida and in regions around Abra. The battle ended with the army entering al-Assir’s compound after 30 hours.

Similar to what happened with the orchestrators of the Nahr al-Bared events, Ahmad al-Assir, along with Fadel Shaker and their close circle, managed to escape in unclear circumstances while many of their supporters were arrested. The army lost 20 soldiers and about 150 others were injured in the clashes. Statements by the detainees revealed that al-Assir set up an armed organization, recruited and trained its supporters, and then divided them into geographical regions surrounding the Bilal Ben Rabah mosque where al-Assir regularly preached. Al-Assir also deployed armed men in apartments overlooking Saida’s main roads so he would be able to close the streets in case he came under attack.

Almost all detainees said that they joined al-Assir because they sympathized with his attitude and positions. Regardless of their monthly salaries, ranging between 330$ and 1300$, collaborators of al-Assir’s group aimed “to fight Israel and ward off attacks by the Resistance Brigades.” Most of his sympathizers underwent military training under the supervision of his brother Amjad and his friend, Abdel Rahman Shamandar.

Defendants also revealed that in the last few months, al-Assir urged his supporters to fight the Lebanese army and called upon Sunnis to desert and establish a Free Lebanese Army, similar to the FSA fighting the regime in Syria. Their statements suggested that the radical cleric started gathering arms and ammunition near the mosque about a year ago. Some in his close circle reported that Fadi al-Sousi (a.k.a Nouh) and Mohammed al-Beiruti were the military leaders and joined others in training and deploying members of the groups.

The indictment also refers to the battles that took place according to the detainees’ statements. Interestingly, there were almost no signs of al-Assir and Shaker in the battles.

Al-Assir incited his men to attack the checkpoint but his name didn’t come up until later in defendant Ahmad Hashem’s statement who said al-Assir requested him to bring a shaver so he can shave his beard and asked him to take his two wives and some other women to the town of Hilaliyeh near Saida.

According to Hashem, he heard al-Assir saying that he will “escape to Ain al-Hilweh or to Tripoli.” Some defendants also said they saw al-Assir and Shaker at the shelter with women and injured fighters. A detainee said that Shaker ran off with an armed group through a back road near a garage, the same road that Hashem used to evacuate al-Assir’s wives and later reported to him that it had no checkpoints. Al-Assir soon followed, boarding a stolen Mercedes according to some detainees. Defendants said that they surrendered once they found out that al-Assir and his companions had fled. Meanwhile, most of them didn’t know that they were fighting the army but thought they were fighting the Resistance Brigades.

The indictment suggested that Sheikh Mohsen Shaaban, a defendant who was later released, said that he introduced al-Assir to a number of Free Syrian Army commanders, explaining that he organized al-Assir’s visit to Joussi and took him in his own car. According to Shaaban, it was agreed in the meeting to sell arms to Al-Assir in exchange for sending fighters to Syria. In his initial statement, Shaaban confessed to transferring arms to al-Assir’s compound and transferring fighters to join the rebels in Syria. However, he later retracted his statement and told the judge that it was beaten out of him.

Shaaban said that Amjad al-Assir, Sheikh al-Assir’s brother called him and asked him to bring a car with a Dar al-Fatwa license plate as well as Islamic gowns for men and women so that al-Assir and his companions can use to escape but he couldn’t pull it off.

The indictment refers to al-Assir’s meeting with Khaled Amer, an explosives expert who used to fight within al-Farouk brigade in Syria. Al-Assir asked for Amer’s assistance in making bombs, in order to move the battle into Lebanon as a retaliation for Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria. He later joined al-Assir’s group and participated in the Abra clashes.

Judge Abu Ghida said in the indictment that a cache of weapons, explosives and mortar shells was seized at al-Assir headquarters, as well as electronics, cars and CCTV cameras that showed the defendants shooting at the army. Judge Abu Ghida divided the 74 defendants into 5 groups depending on the nature of their acts. The first group includes defendants who shot at the army and killed soldiers; this includes al-Assir and Shaker. According to article 549 of the Lebanese penal code, they may face the death penalty. Meanwhile, the second group involves people who haven’t confessed to opening fire at the army but belonged to armed groups, and were in possession of weapons and ready to fight during the clashes.

The third, fourth and fifth groups have defendants whose charges range between belonging to armed groups and those whose roles were restricted to management and logistics, in addition to defendants who weren’t proven to have participated in the battles.

The charges include "having formed an armed group aiming to conduct terrorist acts, attacking army posts and killing officers and soldiers on purpose, attacking military forces while on the job, seizing arms, explosives without license, making speeches against the military institution and its solidarity as well as incitation and causing sectarian hatred and violating civil peace.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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