BEIRUT – Assassinations that go unsolved or go unpunished are the norm in Lebanon. Last week's murder of publisher and activist Lokman Slim, who was found shot dead in his car, is likely to be no exception.
Slim's family and friends gathered at his home for a memorial service on February 11, with some speculating that Hezbollah may have been involved. The 58-year-old public intellectual was a rare high-profile critic of the group within Lebanon's Shiite Muslim community. He was born in Haret Hreik, a southern suburb of Beirut under the control of Hezbollah, and was still living there at the time of his death.
But Lebanon's divided society and sectarian policies practically guaranteed that there would be no responsibility for the murder.
"There is no trust in the local justice system – they never committed a single political assassination attempt," said Nadim Houry, executive director of the think tank's independent Arab reform initiative and a friend of Slim. “You are committed to sectarianism. They don't get to the bottom of politically motivated attacks. "
Hezbollah supporters had previously threatened Slim and issued a statement in December 2020 holding the group's leadership together with the Lebanese army responsible for his personal safety. His sister Rasha al-Ameer has pointed to the group's involvement in his death, while others have openly accused her. Shortly after Slim's body was discovered in southern Lebanon, one of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's sons tweeted a reference to Slim's death with the hashtag "no regrets" before deleting the tweet.
However, it remains unclear what exactly could have sparked a murder now – Slim had criticized Hezbollah for years. An article that appeared on Saudi Arabia's Al Arabiya television website said Slim helped a Hezbollah member out of the group, but the journalist who wrote the story declined to discuss it further if he was contacted by Foreign Policy. A spokesman for the Lebanese Domestic Security Forces said he had no information about the investigation.
"I honestly don't know why," said Houry. “Was Lokman on something and crossed a red line? I dont know. This is the tragedy – those who should answer it are the authorities, but without an investigation, a situation arises where people theorize. "
This weekend in Lebanon marks the anniversary of the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut – a crime involving a car bomb with the payload of an air strike – and the subsequent murder of a Lebanese detective who cracked the case in 2008 It took more than a decade for the international tribunal, under the auspices of the United Nations, to take off and convict members of Hezbollah in absentia for the crime late last year. But Nasrallah has publicly stated that the group opposed the trial and that no one was punished for the murder.
Slim's murder is the 13th high-profile assassination attempt since Hariri's. The victims include politicians, journalists and security officers. Only the international investigation into Hariri's murder resulted in convictions.
Perhaps more than any other sect in Lebanon, dissent is rare in the Shiite community.
"He was very much against Hezbollah, he was against the ruling class, he was pushing for more space and he was pushing for the independent Shiites to continue operating," said Houry.
A Shiite clergyman, who read the funeral rights at the Thursday morning ceremony, highlighted these tensions and later that day posted a video apologizing for attending Slim's funeral and claiming he did not know whose memorial to officiate. The video also contained the cleric's promise to support Hezbollah.
In addition to being a publisher and activist, Slim was also a filmmaker, archivist, and public intellectual. He ran a non-governmental organization called Umam Productions and an art space called The Hangar on the grounds of his family's home.
Slim's family have called for a thorough investigation into his death while others have suggested that the only way forward is an independent investigation by an international actor.
His murder also comes at a time when Lebanon is hit by an economic collapse in which its currency has lost 80 percent of its value. A protest movement that began in late 2019 against the mismanagement of virtually all aspects of governance by the ruling class continues, although the demonstrations are now smaller and are increasingly subjected to brutal violence by security officials. Just a few kilometers from Slim's house and memorial on Thursday, activists in Beirut held a sit-in to demand the release of those arrested in the recent protests.
"There is an urgent need to protect activists," said Houry. “Lebanon is at a crucial moment in its history and is in free fall. There is an unequal battle for transition. Forces hoping for change and moving the country to a better place have to mobilize, operate and go meet people and that is what is really scary about the Lokman murder. You are trying to turn off independent Shiite voices, but everyone feels that there is no one to protect them. "
News of Slim's death also dampened protests planned to mark the six-month anniversary of the Beirut port explosion – another incident for which no one has yet been held accountable. Although officials initially promised a speedy investigation into this incident, in which thousands of tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate exploded in the port in the middle of downtown Beirut, killing more than 200 people, the investigation was closed in December 2020 when the presiding judge requested the indictment against the country's former prime minister and two former cabinet officials. It was another example of politics over process.
"On that day, protests should take place in front of the Justice Department buildings across Lebanon," said Lucien Bourjeily, filmmaker and political activist. “At 9:00 in the morning the news of the Lokman assassination broke – of course, the assassination had many negative effects. From that moment on, we cannot predict what will happen. It influenced the socio-political mood in the country. We fear who will come next and fear a wave of political assassinations. "