BEIRUT: Former Cabinet minister Michel Samaha is expected to be referred to a military tribunal Saturday following hard evidence, including incriminating video footage, of the pro-President Bashar Assad official’s alleged involvement in a plot to carry out terrorist attacks, a senior security official said Friday.
“Unless the 48-hour precautionary detention is renewed for another 48 hours for further interrogation, Samaha will be referred to a military tribunal Saturday,” the official told The Daily Star.
“The case against Samaha constitutes a clear and irrefutable condemnation following his confessions to his involvement in the transportation of explosives from Syria to Lebanon for use in terrorist attacks in areas in the north,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
A military judge is expected to further interrogate Samaha following his reported confessions that he was involved in the terror plot and that he had transported explosives in his car from Syria to Lebanon for this purpose, a judicial source told The Daily Star.
If the accusations are confirmed by a military court, Samaha would be formally charged with plotting to carry out terrorist attacks, possession of arms and explosives, and exposing the state security to danger – a move that would lead to putting him on trial, the source said. Samaha would face a prison sentence ranging from three years to life if convicted of terror charges, the source added.
A pro-Syrian regime official, Samaha was arrested by the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch Thursday on suspicion of being involved in a plot to carry out bomb attacks in Lebanon in collaboration with the Syrian regime.
Samaha – a longtime ally and friend of Assad, two-time minister and former MP – was taken from his summer residence in Metn’s Khanshara-Jwar to ISF headquarters in Beirut for questioning. Another police unit stormed his residence in Ashrafieh.
Acting State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud, who ordered the operations, told The Daily Star that Samaha’s case was part of a wider probe into security threats facing the country.
Hammoud briefed Prime Minister Najib Mikati on the outcome of the preliminary investigation with Samaha. Mikati urged Hammoud to carry on with the investigation in order “to uncover the truth and achieve justice in this case,” the state-run National News Agency reported.
Mikati also met with ISF Director General Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi who briefed him on the role of security forces in arresting Samaha and the circumstances that led to his detention, the NNA said.
Mikati praised the ISF’s work, saying that “the current stage required intensified efforts by security forces to maintain security and protect stability.”
Samaha’s case has jolted the already-divided political landscape in Lebanon at a time when rival factions are sharply split over the 17-month uprising in Syria. While the opposition March 14 parties strongly support the armed rebellion’s aim to topple Assad, the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance backs the regime.
Samaha’s arrest and his reported confessions of the terror plot have apparently thrown the pro-Syrian regime March 8 parties into disarray, reflecting their confusion on how to deal with this highly sensitive issue.
Except for a statement by Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad in which he said the party would not keep silent over Samaha’s arrest, none of the other major March 8 parties have so far come out in support of the former minister.
Security sources said that police surveillance of Samaha was crucial in exposing the pro-Assad figure’s alleged involvement in the terror plot.
“This is what Bashar [Assad] wants,” security sources quoted Samaha as saying in a video shot by a Lebanese undercover agent for the ISF’s Information Branch. He was referring to bomb attacks meant to be carried out in north Lebanon.
According to the sources, Samaha, 64, can be seen in the video and heard saying that Syrian Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk had handed him the bombs, in addition to cash to be distributed to would-be perpetrators of the attacks in Lebanon.
When interrogators screened the video in his presence, Samaha promptly admitted to being the man on film, the sources said.
The man who shot the video, a member of the Kfouri family, was flown out of the country just before Samaha’s arrest over fears for his safety, the sources added.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said in comments to several media outlets that Samaha admitted to his involvement in a “specific security case, but the issue remains undisclosed.”
“The final word in this case is left to the judiciary. [The results] of the investigation will be sent to the judiciary in order for the investigating judge to fully read it before issuing his decision either to release Samaha or arrest him,” Charbel told the Voice of Lebanon radio station.
Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi agreed that the probe is top secret and that “no one knows what is inside.” He warned that authorities will open an investigation to find out who was behind the “leaks.”
Security sources Thursday told The Daily Star that Samaha had admitted he was involved in the plot to carry out bomb attacks and that he had personally transferred a number of explosives from Syria to Lebanon.
The sources added that “highly effective” bombs ready to explode by remote control had earlier been found in various areas of Lebanon.
The same sources told The Daily Star Friday that after police collected evidence for the case and just before the bombs were set to explode, Hammoud issued the order to detain Samaha.
The ISF Information Branch seized $170,000 from Samaha’s residence, the sources added. They said security was beefed up around Hammoud’s house in Moseitbeh, Beirut, following Samaha’s arrest, as was for his official escort.
Further information about the would-be attacks indicated that the planting and the timing of the bombs were designed to coincide with a visit to the northern region of Akkar by Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai.
When asked to comment by The Daily Star, Rai declined, but Bkirki issued a statement saying that the patriarch’s visit to Tripoli and Akkar was scheduled for Aug. 13-16.
Meanwhile, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea expressed hope that President Michel Sleiman and Mikati would prevent any intervention by anyone in the ongoing investigation with Samaha in order “to maintain what is left of the state’s prestige and the Lebanese confidence in their country.”
“In the framework of the ongoing delicate and serious investigation into the case of plotting terrorist attacks in north Lebanon, we draw attention [to the fact] that it is the first time a hand has been put directly on an attempt of this magnitude to plan security incidents which, had they been successful, would have hit the Lebanese in the heart,” Geagea told the Central News Agency. He was apparently commenting on media reports that Assad had contacted a number of senior Lebanese officials demanding their intervention to secure Samaha’s release.