Rasha Al Ameer had been hard at work. It wasn’t until just after 7PM before she realised that she had not heard from her brother all day.
She sent him a text to see if he was home, but he did not reply. At 8PM she messaged him again; still no answer, which was unusual. She had left him two voice notes, neither of which he had listened to.
“I was saying ‘I am worrying, where are you, it is lockdown!”’ Al Ameer tells VICE World News. “And then I called his friend who he had visited. He had not heard from him since he had left. I called the police.”
Hours passed and still nothing. Al Ameer called around the hospitals in the region, contacting all of their friends to see if anyone had word from him. But there was none, and fear of the worst started to kick in.
“I didn't want to think that they had killed him,” she says. “I thought maybe they had kidnapped him.” As darkness fell, Al Ameer and her sister-in-law waited outside the house praying for his car to pull up. It never did.
Rasha Al Ameer
The next morning, on the 4th of February, Al Ameer made her way to the police station to see if there was anything she could do to prompt a search. As she was waiting to speak to a police officer, her phone rang.
‘Rasha, are you watching the TV?’ a friend asked. ‘Go home now, I am hearing bad news.’ Al Ameer’s heart dropped. She left the station and ran back up the street to her home and turned on the TV.
The news reports Al Ameer saw that morning were of her brother, Lokman Slim, his covered body being removed from the hire car he had driven to visit his friends in the south of Lebanon the previous evening. As he was heading back to Beirut, Slim was stopped and executed; shot once in the back and four times in the head. She turned off the news and sat for a moment alone. Their mother lived on the floor above her. Numb, she began to climb the stairs.
“I don’t remember how I told her,” Al Ameer says.
Slim was a prominent writer, analyst and researcher. He was a loud critic of Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist political party and armed militant group that holds considerable power in the country and over many of its institutions. The organisation is believed to have close ties with the Iranian and Syrian regimes, whilst having strong organic political support in Shia communities.
Slim was himself Shia Muslim and lived in a neighbourhood of Beirut controlled by Hezbollah, yet he would often make televised appearances where his views would undermine the party and its representatives.
His death sent shockwaves around the globe; the international community condemned the killing, with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken calling it a “heinous assassination". Many fear that this may be the beginning of a series of new killings in Lebanon; violence that would target politicians, journalists and critics at a pivotal time when its leaders have yet to agree on a way to bring the country out of deepening political and economic crises.
Slim’s murderers are unlikely to be found. For his family, and for many in Lebanon it seems obvious who is responsible.
Prior to his death, Slim had told a Saudi Arabian TV station he believed Hezbollah had a role in the large explosion that ripped through Beirut in August 2020, killing over 200 people and leaving thousands without a home.
Al Ameer thinks this could have been one of the many reasons for Slim to be targeted. “Lokman was a free-thinker, and [he was killed] because he really hurt them in the way he thought,” Al Ameer says. “He was very strong, in telling them their truth.”
There have been several unsolved murders recently with possible links to the investigation of the port blast. The first being a former customs officer, Colonel Munir Abu Rjeili who was found dead in the parking lot of his home on the 2nd of December, last year, with a blow to the head. Just a few weeks later, Joe Bejjani, a freelance photographer was shot and killed outside his home by two masked killers. Bejjani was reportedly one of the first at the port in the aftermath of the explosion.
Just minutes after the announcement of Slim’s death, the son of the Hezbollah General Secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, posted a tweet saying: “The loss of some is in fact profit and unfortunate kindness.” Nasrallah followed this with the hashtag “No Regret”. He later deleted the post and said that it had been about an unrelated matter.
Later that evening the party released a statement denying any involvement, saying that the accusations made against them were politically motivated. Having condemned the killing, they called on the judicial authorities to “expose and punish the culprits.”
To many in Lebanon, however, this statement carries with it a sense of irony. The country is no stranger to assassinations. The only prominent Hezbollah member to be found guilty for involvement in a recent killing is Salim Jamil Ayyash, for the murder of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. An UN-backed international tribunal sentenced him to five concurrent life sentences in August last year after 11 years of investigations.
Hezbollah dismissed the findings. Nasrallah himself said that if any members of the group were convicted, it would “stand by” their innocence. Ayyash is yet to be found and the US Biden administration has offered a $10 million reward for any information on his whereabouts.
Hariri’s murder was the first in a series of high profile killings, most of whom were politicians who had been outspoken and critical of Hezbollah or its allies.
The last and most recent killing was a massive car bombing that targeted and killed the former Minister of Finance, Mohamad Chatah on the 27th of December 2013, as well as multiple passersby in downtown Beirut.
The blast left a two-meter crater in the pavement and tore apart the facades of nearby buildings. His son, Ronnie Chatah remembers the day clearly.
“I was at home on the other side of the city,” Ronnie tells VICE World News, “but the echo of the blast reached my apartment. A friend found out and rushed over to tell me. Within just a few minutes, I knew what had happened.”
Mohamad Chatah had been a long term critic of Hezbollah and their actions at the behest of Iran and Syria.
“He challenged their thinking,” remembers Ronnie. “He went on TV and wrote regularly. He was trying to find a way that Hezbollah would not be a militia but something else that could be held to account, like any group.”
In the days leading up to his death, Chatah had been working on an open letter to be sent to the President of Iran. It requested that Iran’s leader reviewed the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Middle East. The day after he was killed, Chatah’s family handed the letter to the Wall Street Journal.
Like with all the other murders, the investigation into Mohamad Chatah’s killing was inconclusive, no suspects were identified and the killers remain at large.
Since Lokman Slim’s murder, no arrests have been made and there have been no announcements from the judiciary as to the development of the investigation. Whilst UN rapporteurs urge the Lebanese government to call for international assistance in the investigation, the culture of impunity in Lebanon continues to prevail.
“I needed to take some time to evaluate how far am I willing to go,” says Luna Safwan to VICE World News. Safwan is an award-winning Lebanese journalist who has often been critical of Hezbollah. “I did start reassessing what I write and what I tweet, and how they might be perceived. I have to self-censor sometimes.”
Recently, Safwan has been facing mounting intimidation tactics in the form of online abuse and death threats. “I found a reply to one of my tweets playing a video of a car exploding,” she says.
The abuse she receives is often personal, as like Slim she is from the Shia community. Recently she received hate-filled messages from members of her own extended family.
These messages came after one of Safwan’s tweets criticising the party was carried by an Israeli news channel. Pro-Hezbollah journalists jumped on this, accusing her of cooperating with Israel, an act of treason in Lebanon.
These media-driven character assassinations echoed that of the abuse and threats that targeted Slim in the months leading up to his murder. He was subject to online abuse driven by Hezbollah sponsored media outlets that aimed to discredit and misrepresent him and his views.
During the “October 17 Uprisings” in 2019, over one million people across Lebanon poured onto the streets to protest against the government, sectarianism and corruption. Slim was at the centre of revolutionary activity. In December, he was due to participate in a public debate about Lebanese foreign policy, when an editor of a pro-Hezbollah newspaper tweeted for his followers to ransack the event, claiming that it was focused on normalising relations with Israel.
After disrupting the event, Hezbollah activists went on to burn down the tents and assault activists that were occupying public spaces in downtown Beirut. Meanwhile others were placed outside Slim’s home, chanting slogans that glorified the party and accusing him of being a "traitor and collaborator", leaving death threats on the walls of the family home.
“They had been killing him symbolically for so many years,” says Al Ameer.
The abuse targeted at journalists and activists is just one method that has been used to suppress freedom of expression and has been increasing in Lebanon as reported by Human Rights Watch. Political assassinations is another.
While no progress is ever made on murder investigations, demonstrators who protest against the political class in Lebanon can find themselves summoned by a military court on terrorism charges. There is reason to believe that these courts are influenced directly by the major political parties.
Civil society actors, journalists and politicians are forced to work in an environment of fear and paranoia. And although it is impossible to predict more violence in the form of assassinations and killings, Ronnie thinks Slim’s is unlikely to be the last.
“Anyone who crosses this line will get killed, so long as Hezbollah exists the way it does, so long as Iran views Hezbollah necessary for its own survival, this kind of response will happen, it is guaranteed,” he says. “The line doesn't stay fixed. It could get closer to you. It could get further from you. If you're going down that road you are a target."
Two months after Slim’s killing, his family have set up a foundation in his name that will incentivise research into unsolved assassinations, of which it believes to be at least 112 in recent history.
“I want accountability, and I know that accountability is very political,” Al Ameer says. “The work of the foundation will shine light on the people who have been killed, and not just here but in other totalitarian places.
“We are adopting his motto, ‘Zero Fear’. It is important. Of course, a big part of me is dead, but now I am not afraid. If you are afraid, they have arms and intimidation and can kill you. If you submit to that, then what kind of life is that? It is not a life, it's a pity.”