x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Libya probes missing Lebanon cleric

Uprising in Libya may solve mystery of missing Lebanese Shia cleric who disappeared almost 30 years ago.

BEIRUT //Thirty-three years after a popular Lebanese Shia cleric disappeared in Libya, his family, supporters and the political movement he founded still hold out hope that he is alive.

After three decades of almost no information on the whereabouts of Imam Mousa al Sadr, the uprising in Libya has generated renewed interest, as opposition figures and defecting members of Muammar Qaddafi's crumbling regime have spoken out about the old mystery.

Members of the Libyan opposition have alleged that Imam al Sadr, the founder of the Amal movement, and his two travelling companions - Sheikh Mohammed Yacoub and Abbas Badreddine, a journalist - are still being held in a Libyan prison.

Others, such as Major Abdel Moneim al Houni, a former member of the regime, have said that Col Qaddafi ordered the murder of the Shia cleric after he arrived in Libya in 1978, and that he was buried in the southern town of Sabha.

Despite the contradictory statements that have come out over the past two weeks, Chibli Mallat, a lawyer for the families of the disappeared, said they remain hopeful that Imam al Sadr, who would be 82, may still be alive.

"The families believe so and are acting in consequence," Mr Mallat, a prominent Lebanese lawyer and visiting professor at Harvard Law School, said in an e-mail. "The safety of the imam and his two companions [is] paramount in this crucial moment."

On Friday, Lebanon's Judicial Council held its first hearing in a case against Col Qaddafi and 16 of his aides over Imam al Sadr's disappearance.

Also on Friday, Interpol released a global security alert for Col Qaddafi and 15 members of his regime, following the two-week uprising and bloody response that threaten to plunge the country into civil war.

"Mr Qaddafi was indicted in Lebanese courts through our legal work in pursuit of the families' long campaign for truth and accountability, and an international arrest warrant issued," said Mr Mallat. "The legal action will adapt to the rapidly evolving situation in Libya and the international scene."

Imam al Sadr, Sheikh Yacoub and Mr Badreddine travelled to Libya in August 1978 at the invitation of the Libyan government, for talks with officials, according to the Amal movement. Shortly after their arrival, the three men disappeared and have not been heard from since.

Col Qaddafi and the Libyan government have long maintained that Imam al Sadr and his aides left Libya and travelled to Italy.

The Iranian-born cleric, who founded the Amal movement in 1975, was regarded as a moderate. He preached Lebanese unity at the beginning of the country's 15-year civil war.

Imam al Sadr and his aides were last seen alive on August 31, 1978 - an anniversary that is marked every year in Lebanon with a huge rally in his honour. There is now growing anticipation among the popular Shia cleric's many followers that the decades-long wait for answers may soon be over. At a protest in Beirut on Monday against the bloodshed in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world, demonstrators reiterated calls for answers about Imam al Sadr's fate.

Nabih Berry, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament and head of the Amal movement, sent a letter last week to the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez - who is believed to be joining efforts to defuse the crisis in Libya - urging him to look into the disappearance of Imam al Sadr also.

An Amal source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that the movement had formed a special committee in the last two weeks to "follow every detail" as information trickles out of Libya.

"But this does not mean the committee is working just from today. Since the first day we discovered he was kidnapped in Libya in 1978 we have been asking for answers and telling the world that he was kidnapped by the criminal Qaddafi regime," the source said. "We believe that Imam al Sadr is still alive as we have had no information to confirm any other situation. The case of Imam al Sadr is not just about Amal or Shia people, but all of Lebanon."