Aoun Calls for Geagea Release From Jail

By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press Writer

BEIRUT, Lebanon – In a sign of the dramatic changes in a Lebanon free of Syrian control, Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun visited his former arch foe in jail Wednesday and called for his release after 11 years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement in an underground cell.

The meeting between Aoun and imprisoned Christian leader Samir Geagea comes about 10 days before crucial parliamentary elections that opposition politicians hope to sweep, and could lead to more alliances at the polls between supporters of the two.

“The page of the past cannot be partially turned. Either it is fully turned or it is not,” Aoun said after the hour-long meeting, which he described as emotional. “Keeping him in prison is an injustice… I declare my solidarity with him until he is released.”

Aoun is a former army commander and was interim prime minister in 1988-89. Geagea led the now defunct Lebanese Forces militia. The two fought a savage war for control of the Christian heartland in the final days of the 1975-90 civil war in which some 800 people were killed. Aoun, who returned from 14 years of exile in Paris this month, said the meeting with Geagea symbolized a new beginning.

The meeting, the first between the two in more than 15 years, highlights the substantial changes in Lebanon’s politics since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 20 others in a massive bombing in Beirut.

The assassination became the catalyst for Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon last month, ending a 29-year military presence. The withdrawal improved the chances of Geagea’s release and cleared the way for Aoun’s return on May 7 from 14 years in exile in Paris. Aoun waged a futile “war of liberation” against the Syrians in Lebanon in 1989 before seeking exile in France.

Geagea’s imprisonment and Aoun’s exile have been open wounds for the country’s Christian minority since the 1990 end of the civil war, and a barrier to national reconciliation.

Since the Syrian troop pullout, calls for Geagea’s release have increased, and the opposition has presented a motion to parliament to free Geagea. The motion is yet to be put to a vote.

The two leaders last met in December 1989. A month later, their forces fought vicious street and mountain battles, but no victor emerged. Instead, Christians were severely weakened by the infighting.

“The visit lays the foundations for a new relationship within the democratic process we are witnessing today, and within the framework of letting go of the past which is now part of history,” Aoun said at a press conference Wednesday.

He described the meeting as emotional, said Geagea was “cheerful” and positive and that their conversation did not focus on politics. Geagea seemed in good health and “psychologically very sound,” Aoun said. They spoke freely in a meeting room without supervision, he said.

Aoun denied that his visit had to do with forging alliances before the elections, but a reconciliation between the two anti-Syrian leaders could be translated into alliances on the ground between supporters of the two leaders.

Geagea, head of the now-defunct Lebanese Forces militia, is the only prominent former warlord serving jail time. Other ex-militia leaders benefited from a 1991 general amnesty for crimes committed during the civil war and some are now lawmakers and Cabinet ministers. Geagea’s supporters consider him a political prisoner.

Geagea was arrested in April 1994 and his Lebanese Forces outlawed after a bombing at a church killed 10 people. He was acquitted of the bombing but convicted on other charges. He is serving three life sentences for the assassination of political rivals, including the bombing of a helicopter in 1987 that killed then-Prime Minister Rashid Karami.