Former Christian Warlord Acquitted in Lebanon Church Bombing
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Samir Geagea, once Lebanon’s most feared Christian militia leader, was acquitted Saturday of trying to overthrow the government and of masterminding a 1994 church bombing that killed 11 worshipers.
After the verdict, Geagea’s supporters in his home village of Bsharre flooded the streets, jubilantly firing guns into the air. The verdict ended a two-year trial that stirred Christian-Muslim tension in a country still recovering from the devastating 1975-1990 civil war.
Geagea, a slim, balding 45 year old, already is serving life in prison for the 1990 murders of Christian rivals who challenged his authority during the war. He has been held in a Defense Ministry prison for more than two years.
Lebanon’s highest court, the five-judge Judicial Council, convicted four former Geagea aides in the bombing. Three aides, all of whom have fled the country, were sentenced to death; the other was sentenced to life in prison.
The court did not specify why it acquitted Geagea. It also sentenced the former militia leader to 10 years in prison for illegally establishing a militia and another two years for arms possession.
Geagea, the former commander of the now-disbanded Lebanese Forces militia, and his former aides were not in the courtroom when Chief Justice Philip Khairallah delivered the 125-page summation of the verdict.
The prosecutor, Adnan Addoum, had demanded the death sentence for Geagea and several senior aides in the Feb. 27, 1994, bombing of Notre Dame de la Deliverance church in the Christian port city of Jounieh, north of Beirut. Sixty people also were injured in the bombing.
Addoum accused Geagea, a Maronite Catholic, of engineering the bombing to create a chaotic climate that would help rekindle war so he could proclaim a breakaway Christian mini-state.
Geagea’s chief of staff, Col. Fuad Malek, also was acquitted Saturday of involvement in the church bombing. He was sentenced to 1 1/2 years in prison for helping form military factions.
Geagea is the only militia chief to have been convicted of crimes committed during the civil war, in which more than 150,000 people died.
He pleaded innocent to the church bombing _ and earlier to the murders _ contending his prosecution was politically motivated because he opposed Lebanon’s postwar Syrian-backed government. He twice refused Cabinet posts.
Other Christian and Muslim militia leaders effectively were pardoned, and some are Cabinet ministers in Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s government.
Geagea was convicted last summer of engineering the murder of rival Christian politician Danny Chamoun, his wife and two sons at their home in suburban Baabda, east of Beirut, on Oct. 23, 1990. He also was convicted of ordering the Jan. 19, 1990 murder of Elias Zayek, head of a rival faction of the right-wing Christian Phalange Party.
Army troops in full combat gear fanned out today in Christian east Beirut and the Christian heartland to the north to prevent trouble by Geagea supporters. He still has some support among right-wing Maronites, but they are not strong enough to be considered a threat to postwar stability.
In his home village of Bsharre, 70 miles northeast of Beirut, people celebrated in the streets, firing their guns and shouting: ``Long live Geagea! In blood and in soul we redeem you, Geagea!″
Lebanese army troops immediately cordoned off the village and arrested dozens of people, security sources said on condition of anonymity.