By Elie Chalala
On September 23, Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj died, naturally. I cannot say peacefully for not much has been written about the cause of his death posthumously, and when he was alive, he chose not to talk much. By coincidence, al-Sarraj was in my thoughts few weeks before his death. I had been watching the Al Jazeera series "Shahed ala al-Asr" (Witness of History) when the name al-Sarraj (1925-2013) popped up. The series mentioned al-Sarraj in the context of the imprisonment, torture, and death of Farajallah al-Helou (1906-1959), a Lebanese Communist leader in 1959. I was aware that al-Helou was brutally tortured to death after he refused to divulge the names of his comrades, and how his dead body was subsequently dissolved in acid to cover the crime. But I did not realize that the man who committed the heinous crime was a member in Bashar al-Assad's cabinet around 2003 and, according to Ahmad Abou Saleh (1927-), a Mukhbarat (Security Intelligence) officer during the Egyptian-Syrian Union (United Arab Republic, 1958-1961). Abou Saleh was also part of the unionist government. He was one of the six ruling members, where he worked with the Executive Committee of the National Union that was headed by al-Sarraj. Abou Saleh was also a former minister in previous Syrian cabinets between 1963-1966, a member of the Regional Command of the Baath Party from 1963 to 1966, a member of the Revolutionary Council, and the brother-in-law of Akram al-Hourani. Perhaps this link put Abou Saleh in important circles, as al-Hourani was the vice-president during the Union period, a position also occupied by al-Sarraj, whom Abou Saleh knew well. I am listing these "credentials" to show that Abou Saleh knew what he was talking about. Ahmad Mansour, the host of "Shahed ala al-Asr" program, which was broadcast again last month, knew Abou Saleh had the inside story.
Sarraj's admission was not the focus of the program, at least for me; rather spotlight was on the coincidental presence of al-Helou's killer and his membership in Bashar Assad's cabinet in 2003. It was shocking news that the tormentor was serving in Assad's cabinet. Abou Saleh deserves the credit for this revelation. Abou Saleh first discovered this intelligence in a Syrian opposition group meeting in Iraq in 1990. Al-Sarraj never denied his role in the arrest of an exceptional Lebanese leader of the Syrian-Lebanese Communist Party; an article by Kamal al-Tawil in As Safir confirmed his connection to the unjust imprisonment following al-Sarraj's death. However, as stated above, the bombshell was that the tormentor of al-Helou, who Abou Saleh refused to name, was a member in Bashar Assad's cabinet that has enjoyed support from many of al-Helou's political and party comrades in Lebanon and Syria. This support has never wavered even after Assad’s genocide in Syria. This information was revealed when al-Sarraj was invited into one of the meetings during which one of the attendees decided to provoke al-Sarraj and asked, "How did you dissolve the body of Farajallah al-Helou in acid?" Apparently, Abou Saleh had tried to stop the provoker by using body language but it was too late: al-Sarraj intervened and admitted responsibility. After Ahmad Mansour heard this from Abou Saleh, he went on to inquire about the identity of the person who committed the crime, but Abou Saleh said he already knows the person. Abou Saleh added that the perpetrator is part of Bashar al-Assad's cabinet. Abou Saleh, though refused to name him even after Mansour's persistent requests. The reason I mentioned that the time of the killer's membership in Assad's cabinet was "around 2003" had to do with the date of the copyright of the series of "Shahed al al-Asr," and also found a note saying that the program was aired in 2003.
A final note about both Ahmad Abou Saleh and Kamal al-Tawil in Assafir: both appear to accept the al-Sarraaj explanation that Farajallah al-Helou died by accident. They claim his heart condition made him unsuited to the "physical roughness" of al-Sarraj's hoodlums, whose aggressive expertise landed one of them a membership in Bashar al-Assad's cabinet.
The injustice done to Farjallah al-Helou remains a bitter memory in the hearts and minds of many of his relatives, friends, and supporters in his village Hosrayel in Mount Lebanon and beyond. But the death of Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj reveals a history that not many young Lebanese know. Perhaps many will be shocked to know the names of those who helped rescue al-Sarraj from the Syrian prison in 1961. The list includes, among others, Kamal Jumblatt, one of Lebanon's most known leftist leaders, and the former and late president Fouad Chehab, one of the most reformist Lebanese presidents. History is rarely kind even to those with the best of intentions!
For Al Jadid Magazine
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