Lebanese Opposition Hits Back against Crackdown on Anti-Syrian Activists, As Cabinet Vows to Punish Security Agents
Seventy-seven anti-Syrian activists were referred Thursday to Lebanese military courts, while opposition groups gathered to challenge the crackdown on dissidents after the Syrian-backed regime of President Emile Lahoud tightened its grip on the country, reported AFP. Meanwhile, ministers vowed at a cabinet session Thursday to punish security agents who used excessive force against demonstrators.
Among those listed were retired general Nadim Lteif, coordinator of the Free National Current (FNC), whose leader General Michel Aoun lives in exile in Paris, and the banned Lebanese Forces' (LF) student officer Salman Samaha, judicial sources told the agency.
The military judge Abdallah Hajje is charging them mainly with "actions, writing and plans ... which could spoil relations with a brother state (Syria) and weaken national resolve, as well as striking the reputation of the Lebanese and Syrian armies."
The accused count among around 250 activists, opposed to Syria's control over Lebanon, whom the army has rounded up since the beginning of the month.
Meanwhile, opposition groups gathered for a conference late in the day aimed at closing ranks in their fight-back against the army and Lahoud's campaign to crush anti-Syrian sentiments, said the agency.
"The conference is meant to defend public freedoms and democracy, to confront police-state practices and state attacks against the opposition and democratic institutions," a conference organizer told AFP.
The Progressive Socialist Party of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, as well as secular democratic and Christian groups, are seeking to end Syrian political dominance, where thousands of Damascus troops have been stationed since the 1975-1990 civil war.
More than 1,000 attended the gathering, a cross section of political parties and associations.
The assembly issued a statement, calling for the government "to confront the intelligence services over their seizure and lead them back under its supervision."
The statement urged civil and military court magistrates "to refuse to serve the screen of political power."
Jumblatt told the crowd that he had warned of such a doomsday scenario three years ago.
"Happily, we are however united to confront this situation," he told the audience, which included both Christian and Muslim parliament members, professional unions and human rights and student groups.
Bassem Sabeh, an MP from Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri's block, unleashed a scalding critique of Lahoud's regime at the meeting.
He said that he "feared seeing the presidency of the republic transformed into a supernatural force which discredits the parliament and the government and strikes at our liberties."
The recent roundup of anti-Syrian militants -- which Hariri and many ministers said was carried out behind their backs -- and subsequent Lahoud-backed moves that reversed judicial reforms in parliament have triggered fears the state was turning toward authoritarianism.
In a newspaper interview Thursday, Jumblatt said the government was doomed to collapse after the security dragnet and subsequent political developments he charged amounted to a "bloodless coup."
"The Council of Ministers is finished after a period of severe weakness. It is not the position of the premiership that was hit, but the Council of Ministers," he told the As-Safir paper.
"We do not want to rip the government apart today but this will eventually happen," he said, explaining why he had not pulled the three Druze ministers out of the cabinet.
Since August 5, the army has targeted followers of the dissolved LF militia of imprisoned leader Samir Geagea, and those of Aoun who waged war on Syrian forces in Lebanon in 1989 before fleeing to exile in France.
A European Union (EU) delegation called for the Lebanese government to respect people's human rights and fundamental freedoms after visiting officials at Lebanon's Foreign Ministry.
Belgian ambassador to Lebanon Francoise Gustin said the EU hoped Lebanon "would continue to effectively respect these principles in the future."
Gustin said the EU group has demanded additional information "on the incidents these last days."
In an apparent move to cool off tensions, Lahoud received Hariri and House Speaker Nabih Berri on Wednesday for lunch, and invited Jumblatt to another lunch expected to be held next week.
According to the Daily Star, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri returned from a trip to Syria Thursday “optimistic” that a new era of cooperation among top leaders would restore credibility to state institutions.
Hariri kept tight-lipped about his two-and-a-half-hour meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad and a luncheon with Vice-President Abdel-Halim Khaddam in Damascus, said the paper.
A statement following the weekly Cabinet session admitted to “mistakes” in a crackdown on anti-Syrian activists last week and vowed to bring to justice security agents accused of using “excessive force” in dealing with demonstrators outside the Justice Palace last week.
Significantly, continued the Daily Star, the session was chaired by Hariri, not President Emile Lahoud, as has been the norm except in cases when the head of state was out of the country.
According to the daily, Lahoud apparently chose to distance himself from anticipated government criticism of the security forces, the president’s main power base.
Syrian President Bashar Al Assad had applauded Lahoud and the Lebanese army after parliament's vote that amended the Criminal Code, in a move seen a blow to Hariri, who had not been informed of the military crackdown on activists.
AFP said that Jumblatt was also expected to travel soon to Damascus.
The Daily Star newspaper said Thursday: "Lahoud remains Syria's favorite ally, regardless of Damascus' friendly ties with other leaders."
One of the arrested, senior LF political advisor Tufiq Hindi, has been accused of allegedly conspiring with an Israeli official to expel Syrian troops from Lebanon. Hindi remains in detention and has been unable to receive visitors.
Most other accused were charged of defaming Lahoud as well as the Lebanese and Syrian armies – Albawaba.com
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