Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Threatened Trials of Michel Aoun and Amin Gemayel May Backfire on Beirut

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Threatened Trials of Michel Aoun and Amin Gemayel May Backfire on Beirut

Article excerpt

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

Influenced, perhaps, by similar efforts in the neighborhood last year, Lebanon currently is attempting to bring to "justice" the government's most prominent opposition leaders--former army commander Michel Aoun and former President Amin Gemayel. Although both men, who are likely to face trial this year, are charged with financial misdeeds, in truth their offenses are political in nature.

General Aoun, who served as army commander under President Gemayel, was appointed head of an interim government in 1988 and forced to flee Lebanon after clashing with Syria in 1991. From his exile in France, Aoun spent the 1990s as the self-appointed leader of the Maronite opposition, chairing an unofficial party in Beirut called the Free Patriotic Movement. In early 2001 Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri said Aoun was welcome to return home. Judicial authorities, however, announced that, if he were to return, he would be tried on charges of embezzling public funds while in office. To avoid trial on what he claimed were false charges, Aoun remained abroad.

Early last summer, however, he stepped up his criticism of Damascus and of Lebanon's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. Aoun also voiced strong support for the Syrian Accountability Act passed by the U.S. Congress calling for sanctions on Syria. Among other things, Aoun advocated punishing Syria for the presence of its troops in Lebanon and for its support for Hezbollah and the resistance in southern Lebanon.

Lebanon's pro-Syrian public prosecutor, Adnan Addoum, responded by ordering an investigation into political figures "who have taken part in activities in Lebanon harmful to state security and its financial status or provoked inter-confessional dissent." Addoum also wants to crack down on those who have harmed Lebanon "and its relations with other Arab states"--a clear reference to Syria.

Former President Gemayel is being sued for having concluded a 1983 deal under which six French-made Puma helicopters were purchased at the price of 184 million francs (approximately $80 million). Years later, it was revealed that the Pumas were made, not in France, but in Romania, and hence cost much less than the price paid for them. Following an investigation, charges were brought against Gemayel, who, since 1988, had been living in self-imposed exile in France. Denying any link to the deal, Gemayel refused to return to Beirut to stand trial. He finally returned in 2000, and has since become a prominent member of the Qornet Shahwan Opposition.

Today the dormant case against Gemayel has been revived, with Addoum declaring that the "crime has been left unpunished." This has caused an uproar in Maronite opposition circles, which are questioning the timing of the case. Gemayel, who is more cunning than Aoun, was more strategic in his response to the accusations. Rather than defaming Beirut and Damascus, he instead appealed directly to them for salvation. Sources close to him claimed the ex-president would not be averse to traveling to Damascus to meet with President Bashar Al-Assad, while Gemayel himself appealed to President Lahoud for intervention, maintaining that "he knows that I had nothing to do with it."

Rather than cede the offensive to the government, as Aoun had done, Gemayel decided to rally its support. After months of refusing even to recognize Lahoud as president of the republic, in August 2002 the Qornet Shahwan Opposition opened a dialogue with him. …

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