The first hearing of a case concerning men accused of kidnapping a group of Estonian cyclists in Lebanon eight years ago was held in Beirut on Tuesday, with the suspects also mentioning a ransom in connection with the case, Estonian public broadcaster ERR reports, citing Lebanese publication The Daily Star.
Brig. Gen. Georges Taoum presided over a session Tuesday at the Military Tribunal for the trial of 28 men suspected of being involved in the kidnapping, including 26 Lebanese, one Palestinian and one Syrian. They are accused of a long list of crimes, including forming an armed group to commit crimes, undermining the authority of the state, undertaking terrorist operations and kidnapping seven Estonian men for 111 days, during which the court alleges they were tortured and held for ransom in order to extort the state of Estonia.
Some of the men are also accused of destroying Christian religious sites and throwing an explosive device near a Zahle church in order to cover up the kidnapping and killing security forces during a raid on the hostage-takers.
The proceedings have taken more than eight years as more and more suspects have been arrested, The Daily Star said.
Tuesday’s hearing focused on determining those primarily responsible for the operation, and it became clear to the court that suspect Wael Abbas had masterminded the kidnapping plot, according to a judicial source. The court questioned suspect Munir Nasrallah, a friend of Abbas who said that the latter had called him one day, asking him to come to his house to discuss an „important matter.“
According to the Lebanese publication, after Nasrallah arrived at Abbas’ home in Majdal Anjar, on the easternmost side of the Bekaa Valley, Abbas told him that he wanted to kidnap foreign tourists, and asked him if he would use his white GMC-type van to transport the abductees.
Nasrallah agreed, and the operation went forward. Nasrallah said that Abbas, along with suspects Ahmad al-Ajami, Najah Abu Haykal and Ahmad Yassin, headed toward Zahle.
„When we arrived in the industrial city, we saw the Estonians riding bicycles,“ he said. A black Mercedes in front of him containing Abbas, Ajami and Haykal veered toward the Estonians, causing them to fall off their bicycles on the right side of the road. Abbas and those accompanying him then grabbed them and placed them in the white van Nasrallah was driving. Abbas got in and they took the hostages to the latter’s house in Majdal Anjar, where they were placed under the stairs and given food, Nasrallah said.
Nasrallah said he returned home following the operation and hid the white van after he saw the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch circulating images of it on TV. He said he remained out of sight for three days before the ISF arrested him. Nasrallah insisted that he was not a partner in the planning of the kidnapping, and was not aware of it in advance, The Daily Star wrote. The court then heard from Yassin, who said that Abbas had tasked him with monitoring the road from the Masnaa border crossing with Syria, specifically to look for the group that was kidnapped.
He said he quickly informed Abbas of their entry into Lebanese territory and admitted his integral role in the kidnapping. He also said that he had received €50,000 for his role in the kidnapping.
He admitted to being part of a group that took the Estonians from Majdal Anjar to Arsal and noted that Abbas had been negotiating with a person inside Syria referred to as Abu Omar al-Souri. According to victims’ testimonies, they were frequently transported between Lebanon and Syria during their abduction.
Yassin said he had traveled to Syria following the release of the hostages and fought for the Free Syrian Army there before returning to Lebanon.
According to the Lebanese publication, the judicial source said that Yassin had eventually been arrested in a raid by security forces on a Bekaa hospital after he sustained wounds from a clash in his village unrelated to the kidnaping.
Asked about who had guarded the Estonians on the outskirts of Arsal, Yassin claimed: “the hostage-takers guarded them for three days, after which they [the Estonians] guarded us because of the friendship and trust that developed between us and them.”
The court then questioned Palestinian suspect Abdel-Latif Abu Maailek, who said he was a friend of another suspect, Kinan Yassin. Kinan Yassin had asked him to help transport the Estonians from Majdal Anjar to Arsal.
He said he had taken four of them in his car but had not intended to participate in the kidnapping.
Rather, he wanted to get closer to Hussein al-Hujeiri, another suspect who was active in smuggling people between Syria and Lebanon so that Hujeiri would smuggle him to Syria to fight alongside Syrian rebels.
He said Kinan Yassin had promised him $30,000 from the ransom but broke his promise.
The session was adjourned until August 20 when the remaining defendants will be heard, The Daily Star said.
The seven Estonian tourists were snatched from their bicycles by armed men on the outskirts of east Lebanon’s city of Zahle on March 23, 2011 as they re-entered the country from Syria. They were released nearly four months later, in July as a result of what officials termed an „international operation.“ In the release of the kidnapped cyclists, Estonian authorities were aided by Lebanon, France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. The Estonians were released in the early morning of July 14 and were taken to the French embassy in Beirut.
The men arrived in Tallinn in early morning of July 15 on a private Estonian Air flight. The exact conditions for the release of the prisoners are still unclear and allegations spread after the release that robbers were paid a ransom.