Lebanese judiciary slow to investigate 'sophisticated' murder of Hezbollah critic

Lokman Slim’s widow demands an international investigation, says she has no trust in local judiciary

People gather to commemorate prominent Lebanese activist and intellectual Lokman Slim at place de la Sorbonne in the French capital Paris, on February 11, 2021. - Slim, found shot dead at age 58, was an outspoken critic of the Shiite movement Hezbollah and an advocate for preserving the memory of his country's civil war. (Photo by Ammar ABD RABBO / BALKIS PRESS / AFP) / MAGS OUT === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO /BALKIS PRESS/ AMMAR ABD RABBO" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===
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The Lebanese judiciary is still seeking answers for the assassination of prominent Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim six weeks after his bullet-ridden body was found in a rental car in south Lebanon. One judicial source described the murder as sophisticated.

"We are sincere in our search for the truth, but the crime was complicated and sophisticated," a Lebanese judiciary source told The National on Tuesday.

Twenty people have been summoned for questioning in the case so far, according to the source, but no arrest warrants have been issued.

A local judge opened an investigation with the information department of Lebanon’s police, known as the Internal Security Forces, after the body of Slim, 59, was found in a rental car with four gunshot wounds in the head and one in the back on the morning of February 4.

The car was parked near the southern village of Addoussieh, which is surrounded by greenhouses and fruit orchards, on an isolated side road that leads to a coastal motorway that is lined with Hezbollah flags. The region of south Lebanon is dominated by the Iran-backed political party.

Prayers said for anti-Hezbollah activist Lokman Slim

Prayers said for anti-Hezbollah activist Lokman Slim

The area is nearly 40 kilometres north of where Slim was last seen the previous evening around 8.30pm leaving a friend’s house.

That night, two employees from Umam, an NGO that Slim co-ran with his wife Monika Borgmann, went looking for him after he failed to return to the family home in the Hezbollah stronghold of Ghobeiry, south of Beirut. They found his phone 200m from his friend's house in the village of Niha.

The fact that the phone was disposed of in such a way is an indication that Slim’s killers may have been professionals, the judicial source said.

“Lots of criminals don’t know that they can be traced with their phone,” they said.

Investigators are currently reviewing "every detail", including telephone communications in the area on the day of Slim's death and camera footage, the source said.

“The murder happened at night. No one was out because of the coronavirus [pandemic]. We are trying to locate private cameras in the area. There are no government cameras”, they said. “We checked the [rental] car four times.”

Slim, an outspoken critic of Hezbollah, which also operates a regional militia, had received death threats for more than a decade.

According to the judicial source, there have been no attempts by politicians to pressure investigators working on the murder, but activists say the Lebanese judiciary is co-opted by political parties and does not operate independently.

Nizar Saghieh, the founder of local watchdog Legal Agenda, singled out Rahif Ramadan, the public prosecutor for south Lebanon, who is in charge of the investigation.

Mr Saghieh said that Mr Ramadan should be removed because he is close to Hezbollah ally Nabih Berri, who heads the Amal political party.

"The judge lacks neutrality vis-a-vis Amal and Hezbollah. He always benefited from Berri's support to further his career," he told The National. "We are not surprised that the investigation is not moving forward."

Ms Borgmann echoed Mr Saghieh’s views, saying she does not trust the Lebanese judiciary, which has a track record of not solving political murders. She is pushing for an international investigation.

“I hope that the international community might understand that allowing this culture of impunity to continue will only allow more impunity in the future,” she said.

Ms Borgmann describes her late husband's murder as an execution and believes it could be linked to the explosion at Beirut's port on August 4 that killed more than 200 people.

"I'm asking myself: why now?" said Ms Borgmann, who holds German and Lebanese citizenship. "One explanation is the port. Is there another one? All these questions are the reasons why I would like to see an international investigation and understand myself."

The blast is still under investigation, but locals accuse Lebanon’s political class of being responsible for the unsafe storage of thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate for years. Judge Fadi Sawan was removed on February 18 after complaints by two suspects – both politicians affiliated to Amal – and replaced by a new judge, Tarek Bitar.

In an interview with Saudi television station Al Hadath on January 15, Slim accused the Syrian government of smuggling the chemicals from Syria to Lebanon in 2013 as part of a weapons deal with the US government.

Slim, who did not offer proof, claimed that Hezbollah then smuggled part of the chemicals back to Syria to bomb civilians as part of the country’s ongoing civil war.

Hezbollah repeatedly denied being involved in the activist’s killing, which occurred exactly six months after the port blast.

Party supporters accuse Hezbollah’s arch-enemy Israel of being behind the murder of Slim, a Shiite Muslim, to cause division among the community.

But killings or assassination attempts that are clearly linked to Israel, such as a car bomb that wounded a Hamas official in the southern city of Saida in January 2018, are usually shortly followed by arrests.