BEIRUT: The government plans to accelerate the trials of Islamist detainees in Roumieh prison in a bid to secure the release of Lebanese soldiers and policemen held hostage by Al-Qaeda-linked militants, judicial sources said Monday.
The government move comes as the Lebanese Army confirmed Monday that it had received the body of one of its soldiers who was slaughtered by ISIS militants last week. He was among 11 soldiers reported missing, believed to be held hostage by ISIS and Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
The body is believed to be that of Ali al-Sayyed. In a video posted on the Internet last week, jihadists claimed to have decapitated him.
“Around 16:00 today, the Army Intelligence took delivery of the body of one of the missing soldiers, which will be transported to the central military hospital, where DNA tests will be conducted for identification,” the Army said in a statement.
Security sources told The Daily Star that the body was that of Sayyed and had been handed over to the Lebanese Red Cross at an Army checkpoint at the entrance of the northeastern town of Arsal.
The sources said the body had been delivered by the Islamic Medical Association, a local health organization with medical centers in Arsal, Tripoli and Akkar, to the Red Cross at the military checkpoint in Ain al-Shaab, just outside the town.
The government, struggling to secure the freedom of 24 soldiers and security personnel still held hostage by ISIS and Nusra Front militants after five were released last week, is working through the Justice Ministry with the judiciary to find “a legal and judicial solution” for the cases of 94 Islamist detainees held in Roumieh prison since 2007, judicial sources said.
The release of Islamist detainees is a key demand of the soldiers’ captors.
“The government is working on a three-track plan to address the issue of Islamist detainees in Roumieh,” a judicial source told The Daily Star.
“The first track calls for reviewing the judicial files of detainees arrested on terror charges. If those are found not to have committed terrorist acts or crimes against the state security, their cases can be reconsidered and they could be released,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
The second ‘track’ concerns convicted people who have served out their sentences but they are unable to pay fines, ranging from 1 million to 200,000 pounds, for their release, the source said.
“This money can be secured to set them free,” he added.
The third ‘track’ involves the 94 Islamist militants in Roumieh prison who are awaiting trial for their involvement in the 2007 Fatah al-Islam battles against the Lebanese Army in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in north Lebanon, in addition to a number of people arrested following last month’s deadly clashes between the Lebanese Army and ISIS and Nusra Front militants in Arsal.
“The government plans to accelerate the trials of Islamist detainees. Those found guilty of killing soldiers or being involved in the smuggling of arms and gunmen will be tried and sentenced accordingly,” the source said.
“Those found with no links to any crimes or terrorist attacks will be acquitted and eventually released,” he added.
Security, judicial and ministerial sources told The Daily Star that the trials, which are expected to begin within a few days, would involve Islamist detainees who had already spent as much time in prison as any sentence they would face.
The sources said that the prisoners’ trial and eventual release was aimed at ending the deadlock over the hostages’ crisis.
The decision on the commencement of the long-awaited trials was made during a meeting Sunday held in the presence of Magistrate Jean Fahed, the head of the Higher Judicial Council who oversees the trials of Islamist prisoners in Roumieh.
Judicial sources, meanwhile, denied reports about a prisoner exchange deal.
Sheikh Adnan Amama, a member of the Committee of Muslim Scholars, which was at one point involved in negotiating the release of the captive soldiers, said he believed reports of a possible deal were legitimate and that “a kind of swap is being prepared, to exchange prisoners not charged or indicted.”
“It is clear that the government is being more flexible by considering the idea of a swap, even though it concerns less significant individuals,” Amama told The Daily Star. “This is very positive.”
But judicial sources dismissed these reports as “baseless.” A judicial source told The Daily Star that there wouldn’t be any random release, stressing that only the court would order a prisoner’s release.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah was reported to have captured three senior Nusra Front commanders to exchange them for captive soldiers.
According to a report published in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai, Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, seized the militants during battles inside Syria’s rugged mountains of Qalamoun, straddling Lebanon’s eastern border. “Such development might lead to a swap operation between Hezbollah and Nusra Front, which holds several Shiite Lebanese soldiers,” the report said.
A Hezbollah official could neither confirm nor deny the report. “We did not hear anything of the sort,” the official told The Daily Star.
At least 29 Army troops and Internal Security Forces personnel were captured by militants from the Nusra Front and ISIS during five days of fierce fighting in Arsal last month. At least 24 remain captive, after four soldiers and a policeman were released by Nusra Front Saturday.
The militants have submitted a list of demands to the government, including the release of Nusra commander Imad Jomaa, whose arrest had triggered the clashes in Arsal, and other Islamist prisoners.