Foreign Policy

In Writer’s Dying, Lebanese See One Extra Unsolved Homicide

BEIRUT—Assassinations that go unsolved or unpunished are the norm in Lebanon. The murder last week of publisher and activist Lokman Slim, who was found shot in his car, is unlikely to be the exception.

Slim’s family and friends gathered at his home for a memorial service on Feb. 11, with some speculating that Hezbollah might have been involved. The 58-year-old public intellectual was a rare high-profile critic of the group from within Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim community. He was born in Haret Hreik, a southern suburb of Beirut under Hezbollah’s control, and still lived there at the time of his death.

But Lebanon’s divided society and its sectarian politics virtually guaranteed there would be no accountability for the murder.

“Trust in the local judicial system is non-existent—they’ve never resolved a single political assassination,” said Nadim Houry, the executive director of the independent think tank Arab Reform Initiative and a friend of Slim’s. “They are beholden to sectarianism. They don’t get to the bottom of any politically motivated assassinations.”

Supporters of Hezbollah had previously threatened Slim, and in December 2020, he issued a statement holding the group’s leadership, along with the Lebanese army, responsible for his personal safety. His sister, Rasha al-Ameer, has hinted at the group’s involvement in his death while others have accused them openly. Shortly after Slim’s body was discovered in southern Lebanon, one of the sons of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah tweeted what appeared to be a reference to Slim’s death with the hashtag “no regrets” before deleting the tweet.

But it remains unclear what specifically might have triggered a killing now—Slim had been critical of Hezbollah for years. An article that appeared on the website of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television said Slim had been helping a member of Hezbollah defect from the group, but the journalist who wrote the story declined to discuss it further when contacted by Foreign Policy. A spokesperson for the Lebanese Internal Security Forces said he had no information about the investigation thus far.

“I honestly don’t know why now,” Houry said. “Was Lokman on to something and crossed a red line? I don’t know. This is the tragedy—those that should be answering this are the authorities, but in the absence of an investigation, it creates a situation where people are putting theories forward.”

This weekend, Lebanon marks the anniversary of the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut—a crime that involved a car bomb with the payload of an airstrike—and the subsequent assassination of a Lebanese detective who cracked the case in 2008. An international tribunal under the auspices of the United Nations took more than a decade to run its course, convicting members of Hezbollah in absentia for the crime late last year. But Nasrallah has stated publicly that the group rejects the proceedings, and no one has been punished for the murder.

Slim’s murder is the 13th high-profile assassination since Hariri’s, with victims including politicians, journalists, and security officials. Only the international investigation into Hariri’s killing has produced convictions.

Perhaps more than any other of Lebanon’s sects, dissent in the Shiite community is rare.

“He was very much against Hezbollah, he was against the ruling class, he was always pushing for more space, and he was pushing for independent Shia to be able to keep operating,” Houry said.

Underscoring those tensions, a Shiite cleric who read funeral rights at the ceremony Thursday morning posted a video later in the day apologizing for participating in Slim’s funeral and claiming he didn’t know whose memorial he had been asked to officiate. The video also included the cleric’s pledge of support for Hezbollah.

In addition to being a publisher and activist, Slim was also a filmmaker, archivist, and public intellectual. He ran a nongovernmental organization called Umam Productions and an art space called The Hangar from the grounds of his family’s home.

Slim’s family has called for a thorough investigation into his death while others have suggested the only way forward is an independent investigation by an international actor.

His killing also comes at a time when Lebanon is reeling from an economic collapse that has seen its currency lose 80 percent of its value. A protest movement that began in late 2019 against the ruling class’s mismanagement of virtually all aspects of governance continues, though demonstrations are now smaller and are met with increasingly brutal force by security officials. Only a few miles away from Slim’s house and the memorial on Thursday, activists in Beirut held a sit-in to demand the release of those arrested during recent protests.

“There is an urgency to protect activists,” Houry said. “Lebanon is at a key moment in its history, and it’s in free fall, and an unequal battle for transition is taking place—forces who hope for change and getting the country to a better place need to be able to mobilize and operate and go meet people, and this is what’s really scary about the assassination of Lokman. You’re trying to shut down independent Shiite voices, but all people feel that there’s no one to protect them.”

News of Slim’s death also put a damper on protests planned to mark the six-month anniversary of the explosion at the port of Beirut—another incident for which no one has so far been held accountable. Though officials initially promised a swift investigation into that incident, in which thousands of tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate exploded in the port in the midst of downtown Beirut, killing more than 200 people, the investigation stalled in December 2020 when the presiding judge sought to indict the country’s former prime minister and two former cabinet officials. It was another example of politics over process.

“On that day, protests were supposed to happen in front of ministry of justice buildings all over Lebanon,” said Lucien Bourjeily, a filmmaker and political activist. “At 9 a.m., the news broke of the killing of Lokman—of course, this killing had a lot of negative repercussions. From this moment on, we cannot predict what will happen. It affected the socio-political mood in the country. We are fearing who is next, fearing a wave of political assassinations.”

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