Lebanon Militia Leader's Sentence For Murders Fans Religious Tension

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Lebanon's most-feared Christian warlord was sentenced to life in prison yesterday for murdering a political rival and his family in 1990, ending an eight-month trial that stirred Christian-Muslim tensions.

Samir Geagea, 43, became the only militia chief convicted of crimes committed during the 1975-90 civil war, which killed 150,000 people. Other warlords were effectively pardoned, and some have assumed senior government positions.

Troops were on alert throughout Beirut and its suburbs when the verdict was read. Outside the courthouse, they scuffled with about 200 Geagea supporters who chanted his nickname, "Hakim."

The Judicial Council, Lebanon's highest court, convicted Geagea of murdering Dany Chamoun, his wife and their two young children. Geagea was then head of the Lebanese Forces, which disbanded after the war.

Geagea's supporters, as well as Christians who oppose him, called the trial politically motivated. They said it was aimed at undercutting their shrinking clout in Lebanon's half-Christian, half-Muslim government.

Chief Justice Philip Khairallah, chairing the five-judge court, pronounced the unanimous guilty verdict after alternating with the other judges in reading an 80-page summation of the trial for more than three hours.

"Samir Geagea had decided to liquidate his rival, so he ordered his security apparatus to carry out the murder," Khairallah said.

The judge announced a death sentence, but then commuted it to life at hard labor in prison. He did not offer a reason.

The sentence may not be appealed. Only the president can alter the ruling. President Elias Hrawi, a Christian, has not said what he will do.

Geagea, held in a Defense Ministry jail since April 21, 1994, was not present to hear the verdict, and Khairallah refused a defense request to bring him in.

Tracy Chamoun, Dany Chamoun's 33-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, hailed the verdict as "the beginning of the end to the era of militias."

In anticipation of possible trouble, troops fanned out in Christian East Beirut and the Christian heartland to the north. Geagea continues to have support among the Christian right-wing, but its ranks are too small to launch an uprising.

Geagea also faces murder charges in a Feb. 27, 1994, church bombing that killed 11 worshipers and injured 60.

The government has accused him of trying to capitalize on the church bombing to whip up sectarian passions, reignite the civil war and declare a Christian ministate.

Geagea has repeatedly declared his innocence in the Chamoun murders and church bombing.

In all, 13 defendants in the Chamoun case were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 10 years to life.

Christians account for slightly less than half of Lebanon's 4 million people.