Kinda Al Khatib: The ‘spy’ and Hezbollah critic Lebanon would rather forget

A young social media activist is battling to clear her name in a long-running court case

Kinda Al Khatib belives she was set up because of her vocal condemnation of Hezbollah. The National
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The raid began at dawn. Dozens of armed men in black hoods stormed Kinda Al Khatib’s family home, arresting her and her brother, and starting a year-long ordeal for the 25-year-old Hezbollah critic.

“I couldn’t see their faces. They had guns, as if they were coming to take a terrorist,” she told The National.

General Security, one of Lebanon’s most powerful security bodies, released her brother Bandar, 31, a day after the raid, on June 18 last year. But Kinda remained in custody.

Six months later, she was brought before the Military Court and sentenced to three years in prison for entering Israel and communicating with Israeli spies.

These are serious accusations in Lebanon, which is still technically at war with its neighbour to the south.

Little over a year after that morning raid, Kinda’s life is on hold as she battles to clear her name.

Released in March after launching an appeal, she insists she is innocent and was set up because of her vocal condemnation of Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, her opponents accuse her of stoking sectarian tension with inflammatory attacks against the Iran-backed Lebanese political party and paramilitary group, which the US has designated a terrorist organisation. She says this is an excuse to repress freedom of speech.

Kinda’s retrial, initially planned for April 8, is now scheduled to begin on December 23. Sources at the Lebanese judiciary are divided over the significance of repeated delays to her hearings, caused by one judge’s retirement, a lawyers’ strike and national holidays.

Some insiders consider these postponements coincidental. But others believe they are a sign of the reluctance to tackle the highly sensitive – and quite possibly unsubstantiated – accusations levelled at the young activist.

One judicial source said, simply: “Nobody wants to deal with this file any more.”

A former US State Department official described the case as a “witch-hunt” that could undermine Lebanon’s relationship with Washington at a tumultuous time for the small Mediterranean country.

Kinda is now back at home in Akkar, an impoverished, rural region in Lebanon’s north. She keeps a low profile – only months ago, the activist and commentator Lokman Slim, one of Hezbollah’s most articulate detractors, was assassinated.

But, forced to abandon her university studies and living in constant fear for her safety, Kinda says the damage has been done.

Social media and sectarianism

Military Court trials of those accused of spying for Israeli are not uncommon. A Lebanese man was sentenced to seven years with hard labour in March for providing intelligence to Israel and “spreading Zionist ideology through social media”.

Yet few cases have attracted as much attention as Kinda’s, particularly from pro-Hezbollah news outlets. A Military Court source explained this was due to her influence on Twitter, on which she has more than 30,000 followers, and most importantly because of the sectarian element of the case.

“This is a Sunnite-Shiite affair,” they said, referring to the two biggest Muslim sects in Lebanon, which are represented by rival political parties.

Kinda’s Twitter feed reads like a stream of accusations against Hezbollah, which gained significant popular support in Lebanon for its guerrilla war that ended Israeli occupation in 2000. Hostility to the group is relatively common in Sunni-dominated Akkar. The locals there were active in the nationwide anti-government protests in late 2019 triggered by the country’s worst economic crisis. Hezbollah closed ranks with the country’s dominant political parties to discredit and attack demonstrators.

Kinda’s critics allege she has ties to Lebanon’s largest Sunni Muslim political party, the Future Movement, which is influential in Akkar. But both she and party representatives The National spoke to said this was untrue, though she did tweet her support for the late founder of the party, Rafik Hariri, and his son, the former prime minister designate Saad Hariri.

Months before her arrest, Hezbollah supporters tried to silence Kinda by filing a complaint against her for “disturbing public peace”. She said the police made her sign a pledge promising to stop criticising the party and President Michel Aoun. But she continued. Lawyers say these pledges have no legal standing.

Kinda believes she is on trial because she did not heed these warnings.

Concerns in Washington

Kinda’s case has also drawn interest outside Lebanon at a time of almost unprecedented political and economic uncertainty in the country. Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and permanent US resident who was detained for close to four years in Iran on spying charges that he denies, actively lobbied for her release.

“Each time I checked on her case it got worse and worse. A lot of people told me to stay away from it,” he said. “But nothing against her was true. We triple-checked everything.”

Mr Zakka, a respected figure in Lebanon who met Mr Aoun shortly after his release by Iran in 2019, believes Kinda’s prosecution is an attempt to muzzle her. He said it echoes past attempts to silence critics of powerful Lebanese political parties or figures.

“What happened to Kinda is a trend. If we don’t speak up this time it will affect every single Lebanese in the near future,” he told The National.

Officials in Washington are also following the case closely. David Schenker, the former US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, shared Mr Zakka’s views. “Kinda Al Khatib’s case is a witch-hunt driven by Hezbollah and its ilk,” he said. “The flimsy evidence brought against Ms Al Khatib is likely to delay even further the already lengthy judicial process.”

The court case against her is an “absurd use of resources,” he said. He pointing out that decades-old investigations into political assassinations, including Slim’s, as well as the stalled probe into the devastating port explosion last August, have yet to yield results.

But sources at the Military Court denied singling out Kinda for her anti-Hezbollah views. They shied away from describing her outright as a spy, emphasising instead her contact with numerous high-profile Israelis, for which they say she should be punished in accordance with Lebanese law. “If we hadn’t caught her in time, she would have become a Mossad agent,” said one.

The Military Court is presided over by a serving military general and hears cases of terrorism, espionage and some matters of national security. As with other top posts in Lebanon’s sectarian system, the court’s heads represent different communities. Its president is Shiite Muslim, and the head of the court of cassation – a civilian judge – is Maronite Christian.

Lebanon’s judicial system is intertwined with its politics, and the Military Court is no exception. The defence minister, not a judicial body nor the army head, chooses its president, currently General Mounir Shehadeh.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticised the Military Court for trying civilians.

Charges and contradictions

It was Gen Shehadeh who last December sentenced Kinda to three years in prison for entering Israel and sharing intelligence with Israeli spies. Kinda reacted with defiance.

“The judge asked me: ‘What do you want?’ I told him: ‘I just want to ask you to protect young people of my generation from being arrested for political reasons,’” she said.

The indictment’s account of her alleged visit to Israel – a crime in Lebanon – seems to rely heavily on assumptions based on her social media activity.

It was read aloud at the Military Cassation Court in the presence of journalists at the start of what should have been her first hearing in April, minutes before it was postponed.

Kinda, it says, privately told politically affiliated Lebanese personalities that she had entered Israel during a six-day holiday to Jordan in January 2020 and posted a video of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque on Instagram.

But Kinda told a military investigative judge that the video was shot by a friend living in Israel and her lawyer provided the Military Court with a statement from the Jordanian authorities showing that she had never crossed from Jordan to Israel.

“During the preliminary investigation, Kinda says that she did not enter the enemy’s territory and that she got the video from her Pakistani-British friend called Adnan, and that she claimed she had visited Jerusalem to show off but she couldn’t justify how she knew that Crossing 15 existed,” the indictment read.

A Military Court source described “Crossing 15” as a border crossing that allows travellers to enter Israel from Jordan without a stamp on their passport. The National was unable to verify the existence of the crossing.

The indictment also states that in April 2019, Israeli journalist Roi Kais contacted Kinda by Twitter. She conceded that this had happened, saying they messaged back and forth about the economic crisis and political situation in Lebanon.

But she refutes accusations that he asked her to arrange interviews with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and denies they both expressed hope for peace between Israel and Lebanon.

Victim or manipulator?

While the court source said the alleged travel to Israel and contact with the Israeli journalist were the foundation of her conviction, several other accusations were levelled against her in the indictment.

These include communicating by Twitter with an Israeli woman called Juliet, who the Military Court source said was a Mossad agent without offering any proof.

Despite the indictment stating Mr Kais wrote to Kinda first, they believe she initiated contact and then deleted her messages, a claim she rejects.

A 1955 Israel boycott law states that anyone living in Lebanon who engages in “any transaction, whatever its nature” with any person living in Israel is subject to three to 10 years in prison.

This wording allows for a wide interpretation, said lawyers familiar with the boycott law. It puts any Lebanese person who comes in contact with an Israeli, whether via social media or in person outside Lebanon, at risk of prosecution.

People become spies for different reasons: for money, because they are forced to, because they want to, or for power. She falls in the latter category. She has no ideology
Military Court source

Kinda claimed that she only realised Mr Kais was Israeli the day after he first sent her a message, despite his Twitter handle mentioning that he works for Israeli media.

“I had almost 28,000 followers, I didn’t check every single one of them,” she said.

She said that she reported the exchange to the Lebanese Internal Security Forces and was given no instructions on what to do. But the Military Court source said they asked Internal Security Forces head Imad Osman about the report and he informed them she was told the same as other similar cases: that she should cut contact.

The Military Court source accused Kinda of manipulating local police by reporting to them as a cover to continue talking to the Israeli journalist. Far from a hapless victim or the target of a political smear, the source described Kinda as smart and cunning. “She is an intelligent girl who tells a lot of lies,” they said. “She is sick.”

“People become spies for different reasons: for money, because they are forced to, because they want to or for power. She falls in the latter category. She has no ideology,” they said.

Kinda denies manipulating the local authorities. She recognised that she continued talking to Mr Kais sporadically, “from month to month”, after reporting their initial conversation to the police. But she claimed that she thought that the police were aware of this and that she had nothing to hide because she had previously given them her Twitter account details.

“Everything was under the eye of the police,” she said.

The court did not ask the policeman who received Kinda’s calls to testify.

The Kuwaiti connection

Kinda’s indictment goes beyond accusations of contact with Israelis. It alleges she was in touch with high-level figures from countries and international bodies with a strong presence in Lebanon, including the EU, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The Military Court source described these connections as “suspicious in itself”.

“What is your role, little Lebanese girl, to be able to suggest interviews with Mohammad Bin Salman?” the source asked rhetorically.

“It was clear that the defendant Kinda shared security information about Lebanon to foreign countries, including the EU and Kuwait. She is accused of being a spy,” the indictment read.

But Kinda said her connection to the EU was simply as an interpreter and assistant during the 2018 elections monitoring mission. She denies having spied.

The National contacted the EU, a major donor to Lebanese institutions. A representative for the bloc’s delegation in Beirut declined to comment on the indictment, but refuted the claim that it was gathering intelligence in Lebanon.

The indictment also said Kinda had provided sensitive information to a Kuwaiti intelligence officer with whom she spent four hours in a hotel by the Dead Sea during a holiday in Jordan.

The officer is described as having links with Ahmad Al Assir, a notorious Lebanese cleric sentenced to death in 2017 for leading deadly clashes against the army in the southern city of Sidon.

The Military Court source claimed Kinda had become romantically involved with the officer, who used her to access sensitive information.

Kinda denies meeting the Kuwaiti officer, an assertion supported by her brother Bandar – a former soldier who was wounded in the 2013 Sidon clashes and who was with her in Jordan.

She said that the alleged affair was an attempt to smear her in the socially and religiously conservative region of Akkar. “They are trying to ruin my reputation as a woman. This affects us a lot in our society,” she said.

Kinda’s family is standing by her, with her brother Sultan often showing his support in posts on social media.

Beirut and Washington

One judicial source played down the accusations of spying for Kuwait and the EU, pointing out that neither are Lebanon’s enemies. The source also cast doubt on her alleged visit to Israel, but nonetheless described her as reckless and a “show off”. “She speaks too much, and that caused her downfall,” they said.

They said they were surprised by the level of interest shown in Kinda’s case in the US. The head of the Lebanese army, which relies heavily on American support, has little say in how the Military Court is run. The court reports directly to the Defence Ministry.

But Mr Schenker, the former state department official, said the fallout from Kinda’s retrial could have far-reaching consequences for Lebanese-US relations. “Should this case progress, it may cause some in Congress to question Washington’s continued extremely generous support to Lebanon,” he said.

The US is the single largest international donor to the Lebanese army.

US diplomats are preparing a humanitarian aid package for Lebanon as the country’s economic crisis deepens. In late May, the US announced it would increase in-kind aid purchased and delivered directly to the army, including parts, systems and training, by 12 per cent, to $120 million.

The army has never been good at making a distinction between themselves and Lebanon’s military justice system, said Aram Nerguizian, senior associate, Burke Chair in strategy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

At best, Kinda’s case can be a nuisance, he said. At worst, it can become one more problem the Lebanese army will have to firefight to preserve and sustain US military assistance.

“The army does not have direct control over the courts, but if this story and others like it put pressure on US assistance at the congressional level, then the courts’ problems become the army’s problems regardless,” said Mr Nerguizian.

Mr Nerguizian noted that Lebanese political parties are known for attempting to undermine the army to stop it encroaching on their autonomy and clientelist networks.

“Political factions like Hezbollah are more than happy to use the courts through their sectarian clients, and if this casts a negative light on the army, all the better for it,” he told The National.

Lebanon’s last three defence ministers – Zeina Akar, Elias Bou Saab, and Yacoub Sarraf – were nominated by President Michel Aoun’s political party, the Free Patriotic Movement, which is a Hezbollah ally.

Fear for her life

Far removed from diplomatic concerns, Kinda’s court case has already had a significant impact on her day-to-day life. Since her release on bail, she fears being killed and rarely leaves Akkar. “They spread a lot of tweets saying ‘You should kill her, she’s a spy’,” she said, referring to posts by pro-Hezbollah social media accounts.

Before her arrest, Kinda had been writing her master’s degree thesis in English literature at the Lebanese University, focusing on the novel The Shell by Syrian writer Mustafa Khalifa, who was imprisoned in Syria’s infamous Tadmor prison.

She missed the August 2020 deadline to submit her work because she remained in detention. “I wanted to be a doctor in English literature, but now I’m more interested in defending the rights of the Lebanese,” she said.

Kinda has not gone back to university in the capital for safety reasons and cannot enrol elsewhere without her national ID, which she will reclaim if she is found innocent or has served her sentence.

She said the thought of returning to prison, where she was the youngest detainee in a room with six other women being held on drugs charges, terrifies her.

During the nine months she spent in an all-female high-security prison in Beirut, she said she was allowed to make only four calls to her family. “I tried my best to adapt, even though I was broken inside. I lost six kilos in the first seven days from stress,” she said.

As she waits, she has written and rewritten versions of the first tweet she will send when she feels ready to return to social media. She shared one version in Arabic with The National: “Who is going to return back the nine months that are gone from my life? Who is going to return my health to me? Definitely no one. But if they knew how prison made me stronger, they wouldn’t have put me there. They are cowards. Because one person can shake their whole party.”

Updated: August 20, 2021, 12:56 PM