TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Leaders of armed groups in the northern city of Tripoli are unlikely to be released from prison soon, according to politicians and political sources, despite continuous protests by concerned relatives calling for their freedom.
Although Tripoli has been enjoying calm since April, security concerns are returning as a result of road blocks – consisting of rocks, trash cans and tires – across the city instigated by enraged families and relatives of detained militia commanders. As one of the rallies was taking place, hand grenades were thrown at the Abu Ali River, violence reminiscent of the turbulent months that preceded the security plan launched this spring.
Local politicians admit the cases have fallen prey to an ongoing political conflict between the Future Movement and former Prime Minister Najib Mikati – a Tripolitan – who are accusing each other of standing behind protests or keeping the detainees in prison. The issue is made thornier by various security considerations, political promises and the slow pace of trials.
“The files of these individuals are not being dealt with quickly judicially, and it is difficult for them to go on trial and defend themselves and relay their experience of receiving support and funding and even arming from political and security services,” a Tripoli politician, who chose to remain anonymous, told The Daily Star.
He said the prevailing impression was that the militia leaders were doomed to remain prisoners indefinitely, as the only real solution was to grant general amnesty to those involved in the Tripoli clashes, whether from Bab al-Tabbaneh or Jabal Mohsen.
This would only occur if politicians actually wanted to close the matter and not use it to score points.
Instead, as instability slowly returns to Lebanon’s second-biggest city and economic paralysis sets in, he said it was Tripoli’s inhabitants who were paying the price
Approximately 120 individuals involved in the Tripoli clashes are still in jail, many of whom turned themselves in to security agencies during the crackdown. Four prisoners were released earlier this week.
Since the start of the crisis in neighboring Syria in March 2011, the mainly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood and the largely Alawite area of Jabal Mohsen were involved in a series of clashes because of rival allegiances in the war in Syria.
But the Bab al-Tabbaneh residents that have been protesting claim that those arrested only surrendered because of promises made by local leaders to get them out of jail in two weeks’ time. A significant number of Islamists were not arrested during the Army crackdown, and who, according to some reports, are not even being pursued by authorities.
Mufti of Tripoli and the North Sheikh Malek Shaar has called on the northern city’s leaders to administer justice so that none of the prisoners feel discriminated against, calling the delay in justice unfair. He added that the judiciary needed to take responsibility and handle the detainees’ file as soon as possible.
The mufti’s position is pertinent, according to political sources, especially regarding the case of Ziad Saleh, better known as Ziad Allouki, a detained militia commander from Bab al-Tabbaneh.
Allouki was questioned over his alleged involvement in the 2012 attempt to storm the Tripoli Serail as well as over the killing the same year of Sheikh Abdel-Razzaq Asmar, an official from the Islamic Tawhid Movement. The sources consider this a dangerous sign as it involves murder, a charge that would complicate matters further and could result in a scuffle between relatives and security forces.
Efforts to ease tensions on the ground have been somewhat successful, with security forces able to reopen the road around the Abu Ali roundabout blocked by protesters this week and ensure the protest tents erected there remained a symbolic rather than a threatening presence.
But the tangible anger will be less easy to neutralize, with residents saying they feel deceived and betrayed by both politicians and security officials.
Allouki’s sister Sabil Saleh said her family had received assurances the militia men would be released before the holy month of Ramadan, which began end-June. “We are now mid-month and there is no window of light for them,” Saleh said.
“Ziad had a stroke and stayed on the ground for four hours without receiving treatment – this prompted us to take to the streets. We stand by the government but are against injustice and what has happened to our families is unacceptable,” she added.
“We will not stop protesting before their fate is determined. All of them have families and children who need to be supported.”
Militia leader Amer Arish, who was released two weeks after he turned himself in, said he was surprised fellow commanders had been in prison for the last three months. He now believes he was used as bait to encourage the others to surrender.
“I was arrested and questioned, and I was clear that I fired shots toward Jabal Mohsen to defend my area after the government had forgone its responsibilities and security forces had failed to impose security,” he said.
“I was released and the others were detained according to the same formula,” he said. “Now approximately 120 people are still languishing in Roumieh prison without trial.”
Arish explained that the recent road blocks and protests were peaceful and insisted he had nothing to do with the hand grenades tossed at the Abu Ali River.
“There is someone who seeks to destabilize Tripoli and is blaming us for it, and this is something we refuse and denounce,” he said. “Perhaps this is an opportunity to ask why ... did they [the politicians] leave us to fight for two years until we fell prey to the absence of governmental institutions? We have now become victims of a security plan we helped make a success.”