Lebanon’s most feared Christian warlord was sentenced to life in prison Saturday for murdering a political rival and his family in 1990, ending an eight-month trial that stirred Christian-Muslim tensions.
Samir Geagea, 43, became the only militia chief convicted of crimes committed during the 1975-1990 civil war that killed 150,000 people. Other warlords were effectively pardoned, and some have assumed senior government positions.
Troops were on alert throughout Beirut and its suburbs when the verdict was read. Outside the courthouse, they scuffled with reporters and about 200 Geagea supporters who chanted his nickname, “Hakim.”
The Judicial Council, Lebanon’s highest court, convicted Geagea of murdering Dany Chamoun, his wife and two young children. Geagea was then head of the Lebanese Forces, which disbanded after the war ended.
Geagea’s supporters, as well as some Christians who oppose him, considered the trial politically motivated. They felt it was aimed at undercutting their shrinking clout in Lebanon’s half-Christian, half-Muslim government.
Chief Justice Philip Khairallah, chairing the five-judge court, pronounced the unanimous guilty verdict after alternating with the other judges in reading for more than three hours an 80-page summation of the trial.
“Samir Geagea had decided to liquidate his rival so he ordered his security apparatus to carry out the murder,” Khairallah said.
The judge announced a death sentence, but then commuted it to life in prison at hard labor. He did not give a reason.
The sentence cannot be appealed. Only the president can alter the ruling. President Elias Hrawi, a Christian, has not said what he will do.
Geagea, who has been held in a Defense Ministry jail since April 21, 1994, was not present to hear the verdict and Khairallah refused a defense request to bring him in.
Geagea’s wife, Strida, wearing a large gold cross, stared at the judges as Khairallah read the ruling.
“This is a second assassination of Dany Chamoun,” she later told reporters.
In anticipation of possible trouble, troops fanned out in Christian east Beirut and the Christian heartland to the north.
Geagea continues to have support among the Christian right wing, but its ranks are too small to launch an uprising.
Geagea also faces murder charges in a Feb. 27, 1994, church bombing that killed 11 worshipers and injured 60.
The government has accused him of trying to capitalize on the church bombing to whip up sectarian passions, reignite the civil war and declare a Christian ministate.
Geagea, who was widely feared in Lebanon’s Christian heartland during the civil war, has repeatedly declared his innocence in both the Chamoun murders and church bombing.
In all, 13 defendants in the Chamoun case were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 years to life.
Only Geagea and two others stood trial. The rest, who fled the country, were tried and sentenced in absentia. Rafik Saade, one of three men who stood trial, was acquitted.
The council ordered those convicted to pay Chamoun’s two surviving daughters, 5-year-old Tamara Jeane and 33-year-old Tracy, about $270,000. The court also awarded one Lebanese pound, worth less than half a cent, to Chamoun’s right-wing National Liberal Party as compensation.
Christians account for a little less than half of Lebanon’s 4 million people.