The Trump Administration quietly pulled a political and legal coup in Beirut in the short period between the Lebanese government’s declaration of a health state of emergency on March 15 and its banning of all flights on March 19 due to the coronavirus outbreak in the country. After six months of detention in Lebanon, the Lebanese-American citizen Amer Fakhoury was released and evacuated from Lebanon in a quasi-clandestine operation, one that reflected the leverage Washington has in Beirut and the vulnerabilities of a Lebanese government struggling for political and financial survival.
Dubbed “the butcher of Khiam” by Lebanese media, Fakhoury was arrested as he arrived at Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut in September 2019. The General Directorate of General Security issued a statement on September 13 noting that during his interrogation, Fakhoury confessed to collaborating with the Israeli army and that he was subsequently referred to the Lebanese military’s office of the public prosecutor.
Fakhoury (57) was a senior warden in the infamous Khiam prison in south Lebanon that was run by the so-called South Lebanon Army, a militia group of Lebanese soldiers who had defected and then collaborated with Israel after its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. In 1985, the Israeli army turned the former Khiam military base into a prison camp that detained and tortured Lebanese who defied the Israeli occupation. Just before Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Fakhoury fled to Israel then immigrated to the United States. He now holds both US and Israeli passports.
The controversy after Fakhoury’s arrest revolved around who removed his name from the blacklist of those convicted in Lebanese courts for collaborating with Israel, a list that is typically disseminated to all border entry points.
The controversy after Fakhoury’s arrest revolved around who removed his name from the blacklist of those convicted in Lebanese courts for collaborating with Israel, a list that is typically disseminated to all border entry points. It appears that his conviction in absentia in 1998 for 15 years of hard labor in prison was rescinded. Fakhoury’s family claims that Lebanese authorities “signed off” on his travel to Beirut. The most likely scenario might have been that high-level Lebanese officials were aware and played a role in removing Fakhoury’s conviction and arrest warrant from his criminal record to facilitate his visit. However, things went wrong the moment he landed in Beirut.
Legal and Political Circumstances
The main facilitator in Fakhoury’s case was the Free Patriotic Movement, currently led by President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law and former foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, in concert with the Lebanese ambassador to the United States Gabriel Issa (a political appointee) and former Justice Minister Salim Jreissati (now an advisor to President Aoun). Moreover, allies of the United States serving in an official capacity, such as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Zeina Akar and Lebanese Armed Forces Commander General Joseph Aoun, also played a role since the military tribunal that released Fakhoury comes directly or indirectly under their purview.
From the beginning, President Donald Trump made Fakhoury’s release a high-level priority for his administration, just as he did with the American pastor Andrew Branson in October 2018. There was also a consensus in Washington among both Republicans and Democrats on this issue, including Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) who, last December, called Fakhoury’s detention by Lebanese authorities “illegal.” Fakhoury, who owns a Lebanese restaurant in Dover, is active in the Republican Party in New Hampshire and is a friend of Shaheen’s Lebanese American husband. White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, who has been involved in hostage release initiatives by the Trump Administration, led the effort on the American side along with the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and other US government agencies.
American pressure for Fakhoury’s release began to intensify gradually as soon as he was arrested. The General Directorate of General Security that runs passport control—among other activities—at Lebanese border entry points had pushed to prosecute Fakhoury. The state’s commissioner to the military court, Judge Peter Germanos (a controversial judge close to President Aoun), however, was evasive and transferred the handling of the case to his associate judge, Najat Abou Chakra (who is backed by the head of the Progressive Socialist Party, led by Walid Joumblatt); she then issued charges against Fakhoury.
Meanwhile, public pressure started to mount in Lebanon as those who were previously detained in Khiam prison filed a lawsuit in a court in south Lebanon, where the Khiam prison is located. For security reasons, Fakhoury’s civil case was first transferred from the tribunal in Nabatieh, a Hezbollah stronghold in the south, to one in the capital Beirut. During this period, reports started to emerge that Fakhoury was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma. The investigative judge in Beirut, Bilal Halawi, who is close to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, did not issue an arrest warrant for Fakhoury, citing health concerns as the suspect was allegedly unable to make it to the court. Fakhoury was removed from his detention facility and transferred to a hospital in a Christian area of Mount Lebanon under the protection of the Lebanese army, most likely under US pressure since it is the Lebanese institution most trusted by Washington.
US pressure to release Fakhoury reached its peak in February with Senator Shaheen co-sponsoring a bill, with Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), to sanction all persons involved in the detention of Fakhoury with a deadline of March 24 to vote on the bill in the Senate’s foreign relations committee. In addition, the Trump Administration threatened to cut military aid to Lebanon; in fact, Fakhoury’s case was most probably the main reason behind the mysterious freeze of this aid last November. Lebanese officials involved in the case had to balance pressure from both Washington and Hezbollah, which was at least morally most vested in opposing Fakhoury’s release. Ultimately, they decided that releasing him had become inevitable to avoid American retaliation.
Lebanese officials involved in the case had to balance pressure from both Washington and Hezbollah, which was at least morally most vested in opposing Fakhoury’s release.
The controversial military court session was held on March 16, a day when the Lebanese court system was closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. The military tribunal unanimously voted to drop the charges against Fakhoury per the motion filed by his attorneys. The verdict did not mention previously leveled charges such as collaborating with Israel, obtaining Israeli citizenship (Lebanon still does not recognize Israel and remains in a state of war with it), and killing Lebanese citizens. Instead, it focused on his actions as a senior warden at Khiam prison by referring to the indirect killing of two detainees (Ibrahim Abu Ezza and Bilal al-Salman) in 1989 as well as the kidnapping, torture, and disappearance of Ali Hamza. The verdict noted that the statute of limitations on the case had expired and authorized his release immediately, unless there was an arrest warrant against him in another investigation. This was not the case since the investigative judge in Beirut, Bilal Halawi, did not launch the legal proceedings of the civil lawsuit.
Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East David Schenker told reporters that “there have been many dozens of Lebanese affiliated with Khiam prison who have been convicted of torture and other crimes. Fakhoury’s name has never been mentioned in any of those allegations and he was never charged for that.” This statement was plainly inaccurate since many of those who had accused Fakhoury of violations cited specific actions he undertook as one of the wardens of the detention center.
The plan was to rush the decision to release Fakhoury on March 16 and put him on the first flight out of Lebanon before the closure of the airport on March 19. But US officials believed that it was too risky to fly Fakhoury in a conventional way given that the judge in Nabatieh had approved a travel ban request against him on March 17. Fakhoury was then out of both prison and the hospital but with no way to travel out of the country. On March 19, a US military plane from Cyprus landed at the US embassy at Awkar, near Beirut, to take Fakhoury back to the United States. Soon after the plane exited Lebanese airspace, President Trump announced his release and thanked the Lebanese government. Many in Lebanon were shocked to learn that the Trump Administration flew Fakhoury from the US embassy, an act that most probably happened with the prior knowledge of certain Lebanese officials.
Political Ramifications in Lebanon
While Fakhoury has been freed, the ramifications of his case are far from over in Lebanon. On the day of his departure, March 19, Hezbollah issued a statement condemning US pressure and noting that it was “more honorable and effective” for the head and members of the military tribunal to resign instead. On March 20, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah made a public appearance, chastising his allies for what they did. Hezbollah might have approved the release of Fakhoury but not his departure in this sensational way.
The Lebanese government had to react to mitigate this public scandal and show that it was taking measures to address the situation. Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti summoned the US ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, to ask her to explain the evacuation of Fakhoury. The chair of the military tribunal, Brigadier General Hussein Abdallah, resigned on March 20, saying it was “out of respect for my oath and military honor”—Abdallah seems to be the scapegoat for the Lebanese political leaders who either approved this deal or did not veto it. Importantly, he is close to Hezbollah leaders and would never have released Fakhoury without subtle consent from them. On April 9, Judge Bilal Halawi issued an arrest warrant for Fakhoury and noted that it would be sent to Interpol, which is a symbolic move that might only make Fakhoury think twice before leaving the United States again.
Moreover, there have been mysterious activities in Lebanon in recent weeks that give the appearance that Fakhoury’s case escalated the intelligence war between Hezbollah and Israel. A former Fakhoury aid in the Khiam prison, Antoine al-Hayek, was killed in the town of Mieh Mieh in south Lebanon on March 22, three days after the latter was evacuated from Lebanon. Hezbollah commander Ali Mohammed Younes, who is in charge of detecting spies and infiltrators, was killed on April 4 in an operation that also seems to be linked to this clandestine intelligence war.
There have been mysterious activities in Lebanon in recent weeks that give the appearance that Fakhoury’s case escalated the intelligence war between Hezbollah and Israel.
Fakhoury’s case contradicts once again the prevailing notion in Washington that the Lebanese state is under full Hezbollah control. To be sure, it is not the first time that US authorities managed to outmaneuver Hezbollah’s influence among security agencies in Lebanon. In 2015, based on a US intelligence tip, the commander of “Hezbollah al-Hejaz,” the Saudi national Ahmed al-Mughassil, was captured on arrival in Beirut on a flight from Iran; he was immediately extradited to Saudi Arabia in a carefully planned operation with the help of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Al-Mughassil is indicted in US courts for planning the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers residence at a US military base in Saudi Arabia. In addition, the release of Fakhoury also echoes the case of Lebanese citizen Nizar Zakka who was freed by Iran in June 2019 after mediation by President Aoun.
Lebanese authorities have high profile prisoners who enjoy favorable treatment in custody, including the son of former Libyan ruler Muammar al-Qadhafi, Hannibal, who was arrested in connection to the disappearance of Lebanon’s Shia imam, Musa al-Sadr, in Libya in 1979. Another is Saudi Prince Abdul-Mohsen bin Walid bin Abdulaziz who was charged in 2015 for smuggling two tons of Captagon pills—a controlled substance—out of Lebanon. While in prison, Hannibal is active on Twitter and the Saudi prince is enjoying a lavish lifestyle. But neither of these examples approaches the audacity of Fakhoury’s case.
It is also hard to imagine how Fakhoury would have been released had the coronavirus outbreak not hit Lebanon; it clearly provided the Trump Administration with political ground to intensify pressure. Except for Nasrallah’s speech, Lebanon was consumed by the spread of COVID-19; and while the Fakhoury case did not escalate to a crisis in Lebanese politics, it will undoubtedly linger in the complex relationship between Hezbollah and President Aoun’s inner circle, most notably his son-in-law Gebran Bassil and General Joseph Aoun. The two are occasional competitors as they are potential candidates for the 2022 Lebanese presidential elections—hence the US approval in this case was key for their political ambitions. The United States also wields significant influence in the new government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab; therefore, there was no resistance to releasing Fakhoury given that this cabinet wants to continue to be on good terms with Washington as it tries to mitigate the country’s economic collapse.
Whoever initially gave the green light to Fakhoury to visit Lebanon in September 2019 acted with obvious misjudgment by not taking into account the power structure in Lebanon. The political ambitions of some Lebanese leaders—at the expense of the country’s national interest—paved the way for this scandal by approving Fakhoury’s visit to Lebanon without due diligence and prior notification of the security and judicial systems. This has put US-Lebanese relations on the verge of an unwarranted crisis. Washington’s approach and clandestine operation to release Fakhoury disregarded the already flawed Lebanese judicial system, encouraged the country’s political leaders’ corrupt behavior of undermining the rule of law, and violated Lebanese sovereignty. Ironically, Washington always perceives this type of conduct as the hallmark of Iran’s behavior in Lebanon; indeed, the United States should condemn, and not emulate, such actions.