A Trial Tests Lebanese Justice

Two women face off in a case that touches both their families, and which some say is an attempt to curb resistance to Syrian control

TWO of Lebanon's most glamorous women are locked in a heated struggle, one to save her husband from the gallows, the other to obtain justice for her brutally murdered father and his family.

At the heart of the affair is the former Christian militia chief, Samir Geagea. As commander of the ``Lebanese Forces,'' a Christian militia, he was arguably the most powerful man in the country in the late 1980s.

But now he is under arrest and faces trial on two sets of charges - both carrying the death penalty. In one of them, he is accused of masterminding the assassination of rival Christian leader, Dany Chamoun.

Chamoun, his second wife, and two young sons were shot dead in their home in 1990, in such a callous manner that it shocked even the war-hardened Lebanese.

Mr. Geagea's young wife, Sitrida, is leaving no stone unturned in her efforts to lobby his case in what his supporters claim is a highly politically motivated prosecution - and some say an attempt to eliminate Christian resistance to Syrian control in Lebanon.

Chamoun's eldest daughter, Tracy, has meanwhile returned to Lebanon from the United States to take up the cause on behalf of her father and the murdered family.

Born from Chamoun's first marriage to Australian Patti Morgan, a top fashion model in the 1950s, Tracy is planning to bring a private prosecution against Geagea, in tandem with the state's efforts.

She is also assuming the Chamoun family mantle and launching herself into a political career.

``It's not a question of revenge, but of justice,'' she says. ``We as Lebanese know better than anyone that revenge can lead to 18 years of civil war. But especially in a country that's emerging out of war, it's very important that justice be done so that people can feel safe once again.

``I think it's also a moral obligation to my half-sister, Tamara, who survived the tragedy but lost her father, mother, and brothers,'' Ms. Chamoun adds.

Tamara, only 11 months old at the time, escaped death because she was asleep under a blanket, and she went unnoticed when three gunmen wearing Lebanese Army uniforms bluffed their way into Chamoun's flat early on a Sunday morning in October 1990.

After a brief struggle, one of them gunned down Chamoun with a silenced machine-pistol. When his wife, Ingrid, ran into the room, she too was cut down by a hail of bullets. The killers chased the two boys, Tareq, 7, and Julian, 5, through the flat, and they shot them both several times in the head before vanishing.

The killings sent a shock wave through the country, horrifying Christians, Muslims, and Druze alike. It was not just the cold-blooded way in which the whole family had been wiped out. It was also the fact that Chamoun, son of former President of the Republic Camille Chamoun, was an immensely likable and popular figure who had many friends in all communities.

The indictment charges that the killers - all of them now in hiding abroad - were part of an eight-man hit squad sent by Geagea to eliminate Chamoun.

Chamoun had sided with Gen. Michel Aoun in his ferocious battle with Geagea's militia earlier that year. Eight days before Chamoun's murder, General Aoun was ousted by Syrian troops who overran the presidential palace and the nearby area where Chamoun was living. The prosecution argument is that Geagea ordered Chamoun's elimination as a potential rival for Christian leadership.

One of the alleged key figures in the affair, Geagea's former security chief, Ghassan Touma, claimed in an interview published in the London-based magazine Al-Wasat last week that incriminating evidence - a walkie-talkie supposedly dropped at the scene by the killers - was planted by Lebanese or Syrian intelligence to incriminate the Lebanese Forces.

In a detailed rebuttal of all the charges against Geagea - including that he was behind the bombing of a Maronite church last February in which 11 people died - Mr. Touma claimed that both the cases had been fabricated in order to eliminate the last symbol of Christian resistance to Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. That issue of Al-Wasat was seized by the Lebanese authorities.

Geagea certainly has the political cards stacked heavily against him. Before any legal process had taken place, the pro-Syrian Lebanese government summarily dissolved the political party he had set up, and simultaneously banned all news and political programs on unofficial TV and radio stations. Last Thursday, Lebanese official TV carried a lengthy documentary based on the prosecution case.

Before his detention in April, Geagea was offered a chance to slip quietly out of the country, but declined, saying he had nothing to fear from Lebanese justice.

His wife, Sitrida, has won grudging respect even from his enemies for her courage and determination in standing by him, lobbying officials from the president on down.

``If they hang him, they'll be doing him a big favor, because they'll make a martyr of him,'' one Lebanese observer says. Perhaps sensing that, his old enemy, Aoun, now in exile in France, has been surprisingly sympathetic.

Tracy Chamoun, meanwhile, declares herself indifferent to Geagea's fate, although she came away from a meeting with him last year instinctively convinced that he killed her father.

``For me, to know who committed the crime is far more important than the consequences for the criminal,'' she says. ``I am at peace with my own pain, and it doesn't matter to me whether he hangs or gets a life sentence. And if he is found not guilty, then of course he must be let off.''

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