BEIRUT: Pretrial hearings for 20 Islamists who have been detained for nearly six years got under way Friday amid heavy security in a development that is likely to placate the inmates’ families, who have been demanding that trial procedures be accelerated.
The inmates arrived at Beirut’s Justice Palace around 1 p.m. They were whisked past waiting photographers and reporters in prisoner transport vehicles after leaving Roumieh prison, northeast of Beirut.
The initial hearings took place before members of the Judicial Council.
The inmates were the first batch of 86 Islamist prisoners in Roumieh who are scheduled for pretrial hearings.
A judicial source said the defendants, all suspected of having links with Fatah al-Islam, a militant Palestinian group with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, were informed of the accusations brought against them.
Council members also informed the suspects that in the event a defendant cannot afford an attorney that the Bar Association would appoint a lawyer, added the source, who spoke to The Daily Star on condition of anonymity.
He said 230 other Islamist suspects who had been released from jail after being rounded up would also be summoned for prehearings.
Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi promised speedy trials for the Islamists without political intervention.
“The trials of the Islamist detainees will be fast ... There will be no political intervention in the trials,” Qortbawi told a local TV station. “The judicial decision to launch and end the trials has been taken.” Friday’s procedure took place under tight police and Army security. Employees left the Justice Palace at 10 a.m., and the building’s parking lot was emptied.
Journalists were banned from entering the court. The Justice Palace was closed an hour before the inmates arrived in cars with tinted windows. Families of the inmates did not show up for the hearing, and most of the accused had lawyers representing them.
Cars were also banned from parking in the area around the Justice Palace and the nearby Justice Ministry until the prisoners were returned to Roumieh.
The inmates were arrested on charges of fighting or aiding fighters during the 2007 armed clashes between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al-Islam in the refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared near Tripoli.
The 15-week fierce fighting in Nahr al-Bared, which left the camp in ruins, killed 168 soldiers and more than 220 militants, as well as 42 civilians.
Although Friday’s procedure was a preliminary questioning of the men, it marked the first legal action taken by the judiciary to begin the trials of the Islamists who have been detained in Roumieh prison without charge since 2007.
Lebanon’s Prisoners’ Association welcomed the start of the trial process as “an important step toward justice, although they are taking place several years later and have harmed the image of Lebanon in terms of its human rights record.”
A statement issued by the association urged the judiciary to process all the prisoners jailed in Roumieh and in other prisons across Lebanon, irrespective of their political affiliations.
The Islamist inmates have engaged in hunger strikes and riots in Roumieh, demanding that their trial procedures be speeded up. Their families had also staged sit-ins and street protests to press the government to speed up their trials.