Court Clears Anti-Syrian Lebanese Official – Last Update

By HUSSEIN DAKROUB, Associated Press Writer

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Fourteen years after former Lebanese army commander Michel Aoun was whisked out of the country into exile, his army overrun by Syrian forces, the judiciary began clearing him Wednesday of criminal charges as he prepared to return a triumphant politician.

Opposition demonstrators, meanwhile, demanded freedom for another Christian leader, Samir Geagea. His imprisonment and Aoun’s exile long have been open wounds for Lebanon’s minority Christians.

Several thousand protesters, including about 30 lawmakers, rallied near parliament demanding an amnesty to end Geagea’s life term after 11 years in solitary confinement. Geagea was convicted of killing political rivals during the 1975-90 civil war.

He claims the charges were politically motivated by his opposition to Syrian control of Lebanon.

With the Syrian army’s April 26 withdrawal and Damascus’ grip on Lebanon fast disappearing, Aoun plans to return Saturday and will be one of the most powerful figures in the country’s anti-Syrian opposition. Aoun, a Maronite Catholic who enjoys a strong following in the Christian heartland and claims to have support among Muslims, already has been working to build alliances for upcoming elections.

In the past, Aoun was threatened with immediate arrest if he returned.

Today, pictures of the general in military camouflage are seen on cars and in shops. “Aoun is returning,” proclaim highway billboards — a message that could have brought a jail term in the past.

An investigating magistrate cleared the 70-year-old Aoun of some charges Wednesday, including alleged embezzlement of government funds and “usurpation of political and military power” for his refusal to hand over control to an elected president, Elias Hrawi, in 1989. A 2003 charge of harming Lebanon’s relations with Syria — stemming from his testimony before a U.S. congressional committee against Syria’s “hegemony” over Lebanon — is expected to be dropped Thursday.

Aoun says the charges were brought to prevent him from returning after a five-year exile deal with France ended in 1996. An aide, Fayez Karam, was booked after arriving Tuesday and taken to court Wednesday, when he was cleared of charges of trying to overthrow the government.

Aoun is expected to be received by thousands of supporters from his Free Patriotic Movement in downtown Beirut on Saturday.

Speaking in Paris on Tuesday, Aoun said he had “no fear” of returning now that Syrian forces have left the country.

“This will be a historic day,” he said. “The Lebanese people never deserted me, and I never left them. … We have considerable work to do.”

Aoun’s support will make him one of the strongest figures in the opposition, which hopes to seize the majority in parliament in crucial elections scheduled to begin May 29.

Aoun began to tone down his anti-Syria rhetoric after Syrian troops left under international pressure and public protests sparked by the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“I consider my dispute with Syria is over,” Aoun declared from Paris.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday said it was worried about the lack of progress in disarming of militias in Lebanon. In a statement the council reiterated its call for full implementation of Resolution 1559, which called for Syrian troops and intelligence agents to leave Lebanon immediately and demands the disarming of militias, referring to Hezbollah.

Also, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist held talks Wednesday with Lebanese leaders and afterwards said the nation’s parliamentary elections must be free and fair and held on time.

Frist, a R-Tenn., held talks with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and some anti-Syrian opposition legislators. Earlier in the day, Mikati was in Damascus, meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, his first talks with him since he took office last week.

“We talked about the importance of those elections being held on time,” Frist said. “I reflected that the fact that not just the United States, not just my fellow senators, but indeed the entire world is focusing on the elections here that will be held in just a few days (and) the importance of those elections to be free and to be fair and indeed to be held on time.”