Lebanon has indicted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafy over the disappearance of a prominent Shia cleric 30 years ago. Sheik Musa Sadr disappeared in 1978 when he visited Libya though Tripoli claimed he left the country on a plane bound for Rome - a claim denied by Italy. Lebanon has charged Gaddafy and six other Libyan officials with conspiring to kidnap and false imprisonment which carry a maximum death penalty. However, Gaddafy and the others are highly unlikely to ever face trial in Lebanon.
The person assassinated, Imam Musa Sadr, was a major influence in Lebanon’s 1970s sectarian politics. He was born in Iran and got a law degree from Tehran University. His family was Lebanese and in 1960 he accepted an invitation to be the Shia religious leader in the Southern Lebanese city of Tyre. An intellectual, he spoke several languages and was equally conversant in Western thought as he was in Shia philosophy. Similar to South American liberation theologian priests, Sadr was a charismatic speaker and a tireless worker who gave his downtrodden community a voice and provided them with identity and power in Lebanese politics.
Growing tensions in the south near the Israeli border spurred a mass Shia exodus to the slums of southern Beirut. Sadr was religious head of the Shia community and he organised the fragmented slums of southern Lebanon and the western Beqaa Valley into a new political movement. Sadr called the movement Harakat al-Mahrumin (movement of the deprived) and it quickly became the voice of Lebanese Shia.
When Lebanon’s civil war began in 1975 the Harakat divided into political and military wings. The political party Amal (Hope) became an international organisation and the party of choice for diaspora Shia businessmen as far away as Freetown, Accra, Kinshasa and Detroit. These communities provided the financial muscle for the new party. Sadr used his Amal militia to run social services but his pleas for help in the Shia slums fell on deaf ears in Beirut.
Slowly but surely he began to undermine the pan-Arab unity of Sunni hegemony. Sadr was the figurehead of a growing Shia awakening. In the 1970s Amal camps trained Shia activists from Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. As the civil war raged, Sadr’s Shia-centric actions and Persian accent brought about great distrust in the Lebanese Sunni community. Many accused him of treason and saw him as a threat to the Palestinian establishment and by extension to the larger Arab world.
His assassination was well-planned and well-known in advance. Before he left for Libya in 1978, the feared head of Syrian security Rifaat al-Assad (younger brother of then President Hafiz al-Assad and uncle of current leader Bashar al-Assad) summoned the Shah’s ambassador to Damascus to warn him of Libya’s plan. Sadr still held an Iranian passport and Assad did not want to damage relations with Tehran. But Sadr and two assistants left as planned to visit Gaddafy and none of them were never heard from again.
To his supporters Sadr became known as the “vanished Imam”. Despite his disappearance Amal remained a major force in Lebanese politics. He welcomed the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon as a liberation and flexed his power in the refugee camps after Israel expelled the PLO. They remained the leading Shia group until they were overshadowed by Hezbollah backed by the new theocratic Iranian government. Hezbollah won respect in Sunni communities after it took on the IDF and forced it to retreat from southern Lebanon.
The issue of Sadr’s disappearance dragged on to become the subject of a major dispute between Libya and Lebanon. Gaddafy refused to attend an 2002 Arab summit in Beirut after Shia groups threatened him. Libya closed its Beirut embassy claiming it was insulted by Lebanese pressure to reveal Sadr’s fate. In 2004, Sadr’s son filed a suit against Gaddafy and 17 members of his government. Lebanon claimed to have new information about the disappearance and the country’s chief prosecutor said former Libyan Prime Minister Abdel Salam Jalloud and a former Libyan ambassador to Lebanon should also be summoned.
But the Libyan leader never responded to the summons. Gaddafy has not been back to Lebanon since Sadr disappeared. The arrest warrant against him allows magistrates to take such measures against suspects who fail to respond to an official summons. Lebanon knows its current arrest warrant is highly symbolic, but is unwilling to let the matter lie. Their Shia have emerged as a major political force and remain determined to get to the bottom of the fate of their “vanished imam”.