Lokman Slim: Lebanese politicians steer clear of commemoration for assassinated Hezbollah critic

Shiite cleric backtracks after reading Quran at ceremony to honour murdered researcher

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Only a handful of Lebanese politicians attended a memorial service on Thursday for academic Lokman Slim, highlighting fears of being associated too closely with the Hezbollah critic who was shot dead in south Lebanon last week.

“Why are they so scared of showing their support? They are cowards,” said Lebanese journalist Diana Moukalled, who attended the service.

“Lokman deserves to be commemorated. We don’t want to lose the ideas that he fought for, in terms of justice, accountability and memory.”

Several foreign ambassadors, including from Germany and Switzerland, spoke at the memorial service in the garden of the Slim family residence in Ghobeiry, a southern suburb of Beirut.

The area is dominated by Hezbollah, the Iran-aligned political party and militia.

"This was a barbaric act, unforgivable and unacceptable," said the US ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea.

Belgian ambassador Hubert Cooreman told The National:  "Lebanon has lost one of its free, independent thinkers who worked hard for an open, tolerant, democratic Lebanon."

Activists held banners that read “zero fear”.

But no Lebanese politician spoke publicly at the ceremony. Two parties that staunchly oppose Hezbollah, the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb, sent representatives.

“I have a feeling that a lot of politicians were absent because they think it’s a risk to confront Hezbollah in its stronghold,” said former minister Ahmad Fatfat.

Mr Fatfat is affiliated with the Future Movement, the party of prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, but attended the ceremony in his personal capacity.

“I went for two reasons: first, out of respect for Lokman Slim, who was a great intellectual, but also to say that we are not afraid,” he said.

Slim’s sister, novelist and editor Rasha Al Ameer, was reluctant at first to comment on the weak show of public support from Lebanon's political establishment.

"It's really petty," Al Ameer told The National. "We cannot build anything on such gossip. Lokman was a builder.

“The Lebanese state is failing anyway. What good would it do to me to receive a call from corpses?

“They don’t interest me. I’m happy they didn’t call. The few that did call were friends of my father, old politicians.”

Al Ameer’s father, Mohsen Slim, a Shiite, was a member of parliament for four years in the 1960s. Her mother, Salma Merchak, is a Protestant Christian Egyptian.

Ms Merchak attended the ceremony, during which Christian and Muslim religious figures led prayers.

In a video widely shared online on Thursday afternoon, a Shiite cleric said he regretted taking part in the event.

The National  was not able to verify his identity but he can be seen reciting the Quran in a live stream of the memorial.

“I apologise to all the brothers and sisters who saw me on channels,” he said, a pen and paper lying on the table in front of him.

“I should not have done it and put myself in a situation [that created] suspicion.”

The cleric, who did not mention Slim’s name, claimed that he had not been aware of the identity of the person for whom he was praying.

Slim, 58, ran a research centre with his wife, Monika Borgmann, called Umam, which includes one of the country’s biggest archives.

The couple released two documentaries on Lebanese detainees in Syrian prisons, and the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila, two topics that are rarely discussed in public.

Slim's harsh stance against Hezbollah made him unpopular among the Shiite community.

"I used to dislike him," one activist told The National at a sit-in organised by supporters of Slim on Saturday in downtown Beirut.

"I thought his positions were too radical and endangered the country's stability.

"But I changed my mind with the revolution, because there was no stability any more anyway."

He was referring to a months-long mass anti-government protest movement in late 2019 as the country entered its worst economic crisis.

The activist asked to remain anonymous because he also lives in an area controlled by Hezbollah.

"Anxiety levels are running really high right now," he said.

Slim's friends and family said he had received death threats for years, which escalated in December 2019.

Posters were placed outside his home, glorifying Hezbollah and accusing him of being a "traitor and collaborator".

At the time, Slim wrote in a public letter that Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and his ally, veteran politician Nabih Berri, should be held responsible if anything harmful happened to him, his family or his house.

After his death, Slim’s wife and sister told the media that they wanted an international investigation and that they suspected Hezbollah of ordering his assassination.

Hezbollah condemned Slim’s killing on February 4, after his death was made public.

On the same day, Mr Nasrallah’s son, Jawad, caused controversy for posting a tweet that seemed to celebrate the assassination.

He deleted it shortly after and claimed the two events were unrelated.

Lebanon has a history of unresolved political assassinations.

One of the few settled cases is the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri by a car bomb in 2005.

Last August, a UN-backed tribunal found a Hezbollah operative guilty in his absence.

Hezbollah rejected the court's findings.