BEIRUT: The roots of last week’s debacle in Arsal, following the fall of Yabroud, were sown about a year before, said Tareq Shandab, a lawyer notorious for defending high-profile terrorism suspects.
From his vantage, it all began with the ambush of the lesser-known fugitive Khaled Hmayyed in the northeast border town last February, which led to the killing of two Army soldiers.
Shandab’s credibility derives from the fact that he had represented Hmayyed’s family in the case in which 30 people, including Arsal’s mayor, had been charged by the authorities for the killing of Capt. Pierre Bashaalani and Sgt. Ibrahim Zahraman.
Over a year later, the details of the case are still ambiguous, leaving many Arsali residents indignant. Once Hezbollah became explicit about its military allegiance to the Syrian regime, latent tensions deepened, as residents of the border town felt increasingly victimized by perceived state-imposed double standards, in which their supportive stances toward the Syrian opposition were considered a transgression.
Hezbollah’s decisions to go to war gave Al-Qaeda-linked groups a rationale to strike Lebanon, and Shandab has felt the repercussions directly with the suspects he’s unenviably agreed to defend – namely, Naim Abbas, Omar al-Atrash and Joumana Hmeid, all of whom were charged with having links to terrorist groups, including the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. However, his work as an attorney is inhibited by the strict and “biased” approach of the military tribunal, he said. He is certain they will not see a fair trial.
The families of the suspects had initially approached Shandab, a vocal critic of the Syrian regime, and implored him to take their case.
“With Naim Abbas, he personally asked the investigative judge to see me – apparently he saw me on TV or heard of me somehow,” Shandab, 39, told The Daily Star in a sit-down interview, the location of which was not decided until 30 minutes before the agreed meeting time for “security reasons.”
Abbas’ father went to see Shandab in person, and when the lawyer appeared before the judge and stood face-to-face with the terror suspect, he had asked him directly for help.
Building a solid defense, however, has proven to be a challenge for Shandab, who at one point had to confront the Army intelligence for leaking the content of his client’s confessions, which, he claims, were extracted under conditions of torture. His decision to defend the likes of Abbas has garnered criticism from MPs, who have lashed out at him publicly, inadvertently placing Shandab on one side of the country’s sectarian divide.
Challenges of working with the Army in particular relate to the strict and at times secretive procedures of the military court. “These measures are implemented especially when dealing with such [national security] cases,” he said.
“The Army is the judge and your foe at the same time,” Shandab said of his work at the court, “and here in Lebanon, the military judge does not respect the rule of law.”
It is prohibited to leak the content of ongoing investigations, according to Shandab. “In the cases of Omar al-Atrash, Naim Abbas and Joumana Hmeid, their investigations were leaked to the press and this was against the law.”
The three had confessed to belonging to terrorist organizations, among other crimes. Abbas had confessed to preparing a car bomb to be set off at a later date, according to the Army. The car was located by the authorities in Corniche al-Mazraa laden with explosives.
“A small part of what was leaked was true. That Joumana Hmeid was driving a car rigged with explosives, this is true. That equipment to prepare explosive devices in Abbas’ case, this is true,” the lawyer said. “I’m not saying the suspects are completely innocent, but what I want is the rule of law and their human rights to be respected. We want a fair trial, but that can only happen in a civil court.”
Shandab also criticized the Army for “exploiting” information gleaned from the investigation of his clients.
“The Army takes these confessions and exploits a small part that is true for political purposes, which is against the law,” he said. “In the case of Atrash, he confessed that he transported aid to Syrians within Syria, but he didn’t, for example, confess that he brought explosives with him upon returning to Lebanon as it was alleged.”
He later claimed that his confessions were obtained “under duress.”
Shandab said he has had to confront the Army Command over the leaked investigations, but that his complaints were futile. “It is hard for the Army not to be biased,” he alleged. He is also unable to access his clients as often as he requires; he’s seen Atrash on two occasions, both at the military prison through a thick glass using a telephone.
“When we ask for a specialist to examine suspects if we believe there are signs of torture, they don’t allow it,” he added. “Systemic torture is well known at the Defense Ministry centers. ... We know this because when the suspects come to trial, they tell us everything.”
Apart from bias, and allegations of torture, Shandab’s chief criticism of military trials is that the circumstances which propel suspects, if they are in fact guilty, of perpetrating crimes are seldom broached.
“Those who did commit crimes,” Shandab explained, reflecting on cases he’s defended in the past, “did what they do because of the injustices inflicted on them by the state institutions, especially the Army and its intelligence wing,” referring to events in Arsal, as a case in point. Both Atrash and Hmeid are residents of Arsal, while Abbas hails from Ain al-Hilweh.
If national security cases were tried under the authority of a civil judiciary, the distrust held by these key communities would diminish, Shandab said. While he said he was not permitted to divulge the details of his cases prior to trial, he said there were many ambiguities surrounding Abbas’ case that would be brought to relief once it stood trial in a month’s time.
“Once this case goes to trial and is open to the public, there will be many surprises,” he said. “The real case is very different from what was leaked to the media, namely, the role that the Syrian intelligence has played in it.”
Shandab, who hails from the Dinnieh village of Bqarsouna and holds a degree in criminal law from Beirut Arab University, has been a fierce critic of the Syrian regime since 2012, when he filed a lawsuit against Syrian President Bashar Assad at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accusing him of committing war crimes. Recently he filed a case in the Lebanese courts against Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem for killing Lebanese civilians. He concedes that these legal projects are symbolic, for the time being.
“For now, I know these cases are not going anywhere because of the political pressures and because of regional circumstances, but I have to do my duty, I have to prepare these cases for the record, and for history, so these criminals know that justice will be done, if not now, then in the future, perhaps 100 years down the line,” he said. “Until the circumstances are ripe for trying these people, I have to be ready, so the case is ready when the time comes.”