Ahmed Al Assir seized on the Syrian war to attract disenfranchised Lebanese Sunnis. But his prominence came to an end in a gun battle in his hometown in 2013
Death sentence marks the end to Lebanese cleric's dramatic rise and fall
There has been little outcry in Lebanon after a military tribunal sentenced a once-popular cleric and at least six of his followers to death last week for their roles in a gun battle that killed 18 soldiers.
The cleric, Amhed Al Assir, was convicted of terrorism in the deaths of the soldiers, which occurred during two days of fighting in June 2013 in the coastal city of Saida. At least 20 of Al Assir’s followers died as well.
Along with Al Assir, more than 30 other defendants stood trial, with 15 of them receiving life sentences, according to Amal Shamseldin, Al Assir’s wife. She put the number of death sentences handed down by the court at nine.
The sentencing is the latest chapter in the meteoric rise and fall of Al Assir, who had been the preacher at a mosque near his house in Saida’s Al Abra neighbourhood for nearly 20 years before quickly rising to prominence after the beginning of the rebellion against Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in 2011.
Al Assir openly supported the rebellion and called on Lebanese Sunnis to travel to Syria to fight, personally visiting the Syrian city of Qusayr in April 2013, where he was filmed patrolling a front line with an assault rifle and firing weapons.
He also tapped into a sense of disenfranchisement among many Lebanese Sunnis with his public criticisms of Hizbollah, the Shiite political party and militia that wields considerable influence within the Lebanese government and has been fighting openly in Syria in support of Mr Al Assad since 2013.
Al Assir also drew attention by engaging in high-profile stunts that sometimes bordered on the comical, such as taking his Salafist followers skiing in the majority Christian town of Faraya or riding around on a BMX bicycle at a Hizbollah rally. He staged a high-profile sit-in in central Beirut to call for Hizbollah’s disarmament and won over Lebanese pop singer Fadl Shaker as a follower. Shaker received a 15-year prison sentence in absentia from the court.
“He had charisma and he was accepting of everyone,” Ms Shamseldin said, arguing that her husband’s outspokenness was his undoing. “If anyone talks about the Syrian revolution, they are sent to jail. Hizbollah wanted to finish him.”
But Al Assir’s attempts to present himself as a moderate flailed as his calls for jihad in Syria and even in Lebanon grew louder and tensions rose between his supporters and Hizbollah’s. Smaller clashes preceded the June 2013 battle, and though Al Assir had called for the disarmament of Hizbollah within Lebanon, he and his supporters were heavily armed by June 2013.
In the years since, criticism of Hizbollah for its role in Syria faded inside Lebanon, as has support for Al Assir. The radicalisation of the Syrian rebellion and bombings inside Lebanon attributed to Al Qaeda-affiliated groups and ISIL since 2013 have also contributed to that shift. Hizbollah has more recently received praise even from some of its detractors for its role in helping drive those groups from the country.
Hostility towards the presence of more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon has also grown in recent years, as well as the sense that Mr Al Assad has more or less won the war.
In Al Abra this week, there were no signs of the destruction the neighbourhood suffered in 2013, and most of the opposition to the sentencing has been small demonstrations by families of the men who stood trial. Last week, Ms Shamseldin and others demonstrated in Al Abra, and another demonstration was planned for Friday.
Families of the soldiers who died in the fighting have also demonstrated, blocking roads last year in Beirut to protest against delays in the trial and reiterate demands for harsh sentences for the accused.
"We will follow him to his grave," the mother of George Bou Saab, one of those soldiers, told the Lebanese paper The Daily Star after a court hearing in 2015. "If I wasn't present at a court … I would've killed him and drank his blood.
“This criminal cannot remain alive while 18 men are buried underground,” she added.
Many of the facts surrounding the battle remain murky. Ms Shamseldin and others claim the fighting was provoked by Hizbollah militiamen in the neighbourhood, while others say Al Assir’s supporters started the fighting when they attacked an army checkpoint. Ms Shamseldin and others also accuse Hizbollah of participating in the battle alongside the army.
“No one was allowed to investigate,” Ms Shamseldin said. “No witnesses were allowed in court. … There were many people who witnessed the involvement of Hizbollah.”
Umm Mahmoud Al Halabi, whose son was killed in the fighting, made similar claims. “My son was shot in the back by Hizbollah,” she said.
Omar and Mohammed Al Assir, two of the couple’s three sons, also received life sentences in absentia for their roles in the fighting. Omar was 17 at the time of the battle, and Mohammed was 20. Ms Shamseldin said lawyers for the family would appeal the sentences in the coming week.
Al Assir had also initially escaped capture and went in to hiding after the fighting, but was arrested while trying to leave the country in 2015 though Beirut’s airport.
The lack of due process in Lebanon’s military tribunals, as well as the military’s use of torture, are issues that have been raised by rights activists. It was even difficult for journalists to obtain the exact number of defendants in the trial and who had received what sentence. On Wednesday, an army spokesman said he had “no information” regarding the proceedings.
“Our major concern about the tribunal is that it’s not an independent court that does not have the guarantees of a fair trial,” said George Ghali, the programmes manager at ALEF, a Lebanese human rights group. “The court is not impartial. You have military people judging civilians. In the case of Al Assir, he’s being tried for attacking the Lebanese army.”
The mother of Omar Al Baraka, a 24-year-old man who received a 10-year prison sentence, said her son had been a bystander and was attempting to check whether his cousins, who lived in the neighbourhood, were safe. He was arrested, along with more than 100 other people in the area, after the fighting.
Rights groups also collected evidence of torture by the military after the fighting, and a 36-year-old man named Nader Al Bayoumi died in military custody after the battle.
“That death has not been investigated properly,” Mr Ghali said.
Though the Lebanese government has not carried out an execution since 2004, Mr Ghali said he was concerned that Al Assir’s death sentence might actually go ahead.
Earlier this year interior minister Ibrahim Machnouk called for the state to resume carrying out the death penalties of those convicted.
"I know we would have European, Western, or even international opposition,” Mr Machnouk said. “But we have a situation of deranged people carrying weapons.”
Mr Ghali said there are about 80 people in Roumieh prison that have been sentenced to death, and approximately another 40 who have received death sentences in absentia, a number that has risen in recent years.
“We are certainly concerned with the hike in sentences with the guise of counterterrorism,” Mr Ghali said. “The public is supportive of the death penalty, and we are worried politicians seeking support will return to it.”
More recently, the families of nine Lebanese soldiers who died after being captured by ISIL and Al Qaeda-linked militants in northern Lebanon in 2014 have also demanded the death penalty for defendants in that case.
“Whatever he may have done, executing Mr Al Assir would be a step backwards for Lebanon’s human rights record, and wouldn’t deter crime or make Lebanon any more safe,” said Bassam Khawaja, the Lebanon and Kuwait researcher at Human Rights Watch.
While 58 countries still have death penalty laws on the books, 23 were believed to have carried out executions in 2016.
There have been multiple proposals since 2004 by members of the Lebanese government to fully abolish the death penalty, though none have gained enough traction to be passed.