BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanon's newly elected Parliament, dominated by an anti-Syrian coalition, approved an amnesty motion Monday for the release of former Christian warlord Samir Geagea (search), who has been behind bars since 1994.
In its first legislative session since last month's parliamentary elections in which the anti-Syrian alliance scored a majority of seats, the 128-member legislature also endorsed another amnesty bill for the release of a group of suspected Muslim militants being tried on charges of endangering state security.
About 100 lawmakers, including Geagea's wife, Setrida, voted for the release of Geagea and the militants.
About 15 legislators of the militant Hezbollah (search) group and their allies walked out of the parliament session as soon as the lawmakers began debating the amnesty motion for Geagea's release, apparently to avoid taking a stand on the issue.
Just after the vote, a crowd of supporters cheered outside the parliament building. Within minutes, heavy gunfire and fireworks erupted and champagne flowed in Geagea's mountain hometown of Becharre (search) in northern Lebanon. Cars waving Lebanese Forces (search) flags honked, and passengers shouted in support. One man beat a large drum.
Lebanese troops stood by watching but did not intervene in Becharre, known for its nearby biblical Cedar mountains and for being the ancestral home of American-Lebanese philosopher Khalil Gibran (search).
It could be a week before the former warlord is freed.
Setrida Geagea (search) said outside parliament that the process of releasing her husband from prison will take a week at most. She said she hopes to travel with her husband abroad where he can undergo a medical checkup.
President Emile Lahoud (search) has to sign both amnesties, and since the second one involves terror suspects, he may refuse to sign and send the bill back to parliament for another vote.
If he approves it will have to be signed and appear in an official gazette and then enforced, a process that could take up to a week. Lahoud was reported to have promised to sign the amnesty bill.
Geagea, who led the powerful Christian Lebanese Forces militia during the 1975-90 civil war, has spent most of the past 11 years in solitary confinement in an underground cell at the Defense Ministry.
He is the only prominent former warlord to be jailed for opposing Syrian dominance while other ex-militia leaders benefited from a 1991 general amnesty for crimes committed during the 1975-90 civil war and some became lawmakers and Cabinet ministers. The amnesty did not apply to political assassinations.
Geagea was arrested in April 1994 and his Lebanese Forces outlawed after a bombing at a church 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 in the civil war, including the bombing of a helicopter that killed then-Prime Minister Rashid Karami (search) in 1987.
Geagea's supporters consider 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 they did not get a fair trial. The government denies this.