Court delays 'attacks plot' trial of Lebanese ex-minister

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The trial of a former Lebanese minister accused of plotting attacks and transporting explosives was postponed on Thursday because of the absence of his alleged co-conspirator, a Syrian security chief.

Ex-Information Minister Michel Samaha had been expected to face the first session of his trial before a military court on Thursday, but the judge overseeing the process, Brigadier-General Khalil Ibrahim, announced a delay.

“The session is postponed until December 3 so that General Ali Mamluk can report” to the court, Ibrahim said, referring to the Syrian security chief accused of cooperating with Samaha in the case.

Samaha was arrested in August 2012, but Mamluk -- one of Syria’s most senior security officials -- is believed to be in Syria.

The two face charges of “transporting explosives from Syria to Lebanon in an attempt to assassinate Lebanese political and religious leaders”.

If convicted, they face the death penalty, but growing tensions in Lebanon and the highly politically charged nature of the trial have raised questions about whether it will proceed.

The Lebanese judiciary issued an arrest warrant for Mamluk and sent Syria a formal notification of the warrant and charges in February, but received no response.

In the event of a non-response, Lebanese law allows for the trial against Samaha to proceed with Mamluk being tried in absentia, but the court has not so far suggested it would take that approach.

Sakher Hashem, one of Samaha’s defence lawyers, said “the political situation has a major role in this process”.

“Issuing an indictment against the head of the Syrian state security... is a declaration of war on the Syrian state,” he told AFP.

“Prosecuting Ali Mamluk is a step that no one can take,” he added, saying he believed the court had delayed the trial in order to see how the political situation would evolve in coming months.

Hashem said his client, who has remained in jail since his arrest last year, wanted a speedy trial.

Samaha appeared in good health during the brief session, wearing a blue suit and speaking only briefly to offer his name, age and place of residence.

Samaha was known for his close ties to the regime in Damascus, which has been battling an uprising for more than two years.

The conflict has raised tensions in Lebanon, which Syria occupied militarily and politically for nearly three decades until 2005.

Beirut has maintained an official policy of neutrality on the Syrian conflict, but the violence has regularly spilled over its borders and has raised sectarian tensions.

The powerful Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah and its allies back the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Lebanon’s Sunni opposition meanwhile has backed the Sunni-dominated rebellion against Assad.

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