Former Christian leader sentenced to life on eve of papal visit
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ On the eve of the pope’s visit, one of the most powerful Christian warlords of Lebanon’s civil war was convicted and sentenced to life in prison Friday for trying to assassinate the former defense minister.
Many Christians had hoped the arrival Saturday of Pope John Paul II would prompt President Elias Hrawi to pardon Samir Geagea, who argued the charges were politically motivated. Both Hrawi and Geagea are Maronite Christians.
Geagea, 45, has become a symbol for many Lebanese Christians, who consider his trial _ the only one of a prominent warlord from the 1975-90 war _ as a confirmation of the government’s tilt toward Muslims.
Seven of Geagea’s supporters were sentenced in absentia to life in prison in the 1991 attempt to assassinate Defense Minister Michel Murr, who escaped with minor injuries. He is now interior minister.
The attack came as the government was moving to dismantle militias, including Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, in accordance with a peace pact that ended the civil war.
The Lebanese Forces was the largest of the Christian militias. Geagea was the only militia chieftain who refused to join the postwar government. His Muslim foes went on to hold Cabinet posts.
Geagea is already serving two life sentences. As in previous verdicts, he was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted to life in prison. Three other defendants were acquitted.
In 1995, Geagea was convicted of engineering the murder of rival Christian politician Danny Chamoun, his half-German wife, and their two sons on Oct. 21, 1990.
He also was convicted of the 1990 murder of Elias Zayek, who headed a rival faction of the right-wing Christian Phalange Party.
Geagea, who is being held in solitary confinement at the Defense Ministry compound, did not appear in court for the verdict, which cannot be appealed.
The pope arrives Saturday for a 32-hour visit, primarily to deliver a formal message to Lebanese Catholics in response to the conclusions of a Lebanese bishops’ meeting at the Vatican in 1995.
The bishops had urged the release of political prisoners, an allusion to Geagea, who also faces trial on charges of instigating the 1987 assassination of Prime Minister Rashid Karami, a Muslim.
In that case, Geagea insists he was framed by the pro-Syrian government for opposing its policies and Syrian dominance of Lebanon.
Syria maintains 40,000 troops in Lebanon and is the country’s main power broker.