Lebanese Christians Await Return of Leaders

A Lebanese magistrate on Wednesday cleared Michel Aoun (search), the country's most prominent anti-Syrian politician, of crimes committed before his 1991 exile to France three days ahead of his planned return to a Lebanon free of Syrian forces.

Opposition demonstrators, meanwhile, demanded freedom for another, jailed former Christian warlord — Samir Geagea (search) — as President Emile Lahoud (search) urged Parliament to decide on an election law acceptable to all factions.

Geagea's imprisonment and the exile to France of Aoun have been open wounds for Lebanon's Maronite Christian (search) minority since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

With three weeks left before balloting for a new parliament was to be begin, Lebanon still has no election law, which could result in an election being held under the 2000 rules. But there has been strong opposition to the 2000 law, drawn under Syrian control — reportedly by Syrian intelligence officers — and described by some as a recipe to bring back another pro-Syrian parliament.

A guard at a base for Syrian-backed Palestinian guerrillas near the Syrian border, meanwhile, fired a warning shot into the air Wednesday after turning away a U.N. team verifying last week's Syrian troop pullout, security officials said. No one was hurt.

Gathering near Parliament in Beirut, several thousand flag-waving protesters urged the legislature to act on an amnesty bill that would end Geagea's life term in prison.

Chants of "Freedom for Samir Geagea is freedom for Lebanon" and "Acquittal ... Acquittal ... Geagea, Geagea Acquittal" rang out from the crowd, which included about 30 legislators.

Geagea has been in solitary confinement, spending most of the past 11 years in an underground cell at the Defense Ministry. He's the only prominent former warlord to be jailed for opposing Syrian dominance while other ex-militia leaders benefited from an amnesty for crimes committed during the 1975-90 civil war and went on to become lawmakers and Cabinet ministers.

Geagea, who led the Maronite Christian Lebanese Forces (search) militia during the civil war, was arrested in April 1994 after the bombing of a church that killed 10 people. He was acquitted of the bombing but convicted on other charges.

He is serving three life sentences for the assassination of political rivals, including the bombing of a military helicopter that killed in 1987 then-Prime Minister Rashid Karami (search).

Geagea's supporters long have considered him a political prisoner. The human rights group Amnesty International (search) has called for the release or retrial of Geagea and fellow militiaman Jirjis al-Khoury (search). Amnesty said last year said that their trial had been unfair. The government denies that.

Past attempts to secure a pardon for Geagea and Aoun's return have been stymied by Syrian influence. But Syrian troops completed their withdrawal from Lebanon last week after intensified international and domestic pressure stemming from the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search).

Aoun's return was expected Saturday. An aide of his was detained Tuesday at the airport on returning from Paris.

Fayez Karam, a former army lieutenant colonel, appeared before a military court, which had sentenced him in absentia in 1992 to 10 years in prison for forming a "group to overthrow the government." He was retried and acquitted within hours.

Later, he told reporters the charges were politically motivated and that he had come to show he was not above the law.

An investigating judge on Wednesday found Aoun was covered by an amnesty and cleared him of charges prior to 1991 when he was sent into exile. The charges largely include alleged embezzlement of government funds. Aoun has rejected the charges and has challenged authorities to pay him back his dues as a member of the military.

A 2003 charge of harming Lebanon's relations with Syria for testifying before a U.S. congressional committee against Syrian domination of Lebanon was expected to be dropped on Thursday.

An amnesty bill also would free Muslim suspects in jail for several years awaiting trial on state security crimes. But passing legislation was held up when former Prime Minister Omar Karami (search), the late Karami's brother, and the family rejected an amnesty.

Parliamentary elections must begin May 29 and end June 20.

The anti-Syrian opposition, buoyed by the Syrian withdrawal and the fall of some of its Lebanese symbols, hopes to win the voting. But differences over the electoral law have caused divisions within the opposition and the pro-Syrian camps.

The main opposition groups and some pro-Syrian factions favor an electoral law that lays small polling districts. Others in the pro-Syrian camp favor large electoral districts where they expect to fare better.

But with the 128 parliamentary seats split equally between Christian and Muslim legislators, Christians have complained that their representation will be decided in large districts by Muslim voters, particularly in predominantly Shiite Muslim southern Lebanon.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (search) of the Shiite Amal (search) movement, who risks losing seats if smaller districts are demarcated, has been reluctant to call a parliamentary session to discuss a new law before Thursday's deadline to formally call electoral bodies into service.

Lahoud, the Lebanese president, stepped in, sending a letter to Berri to urge the legislature to act, a move that would indirectly call Parliament into session. Berri is studying the letter, the state-run media said.

The influential Maronite Catholic Church, whose head Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir (search) is one of the major backers of the opposition, on Wednesday supported small electoral districts, saying it guarantees the best representation of the people.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati (search) made a several hour trip to Syria Wednesday, his first since he was appointed last month. He discussed bilateral relations with his friend, President Bashar Assad (search) of Syria. As Syria's influence dwindles, Mikati is considered the first premier whose appointment did not come from Damascus in the last 15 years.