Saturday 20 April 2019

Still no justice for slain Irish soldiers

The chief suspect in the murder of two peacekeepers in Lebanon is living safely in the US - now there's a renewed bid to see whether he can be put on trial 25 years later. Ben Quinn reports

Lebanon earned itself a special significance in Irish minds during the Defence Forces' 23-year UN peacekeeping mission there. Forty-eight Irish soldiers lost their lives and their sacrifice is still remembered with gratitude in the small Middle Eastern nation where the spectre of civil war looms once again.

Of those 48 deaths, the killings of Pte Derek Smallhorne and Pte Thomas Barrett by gunmen from the Israeli-backed Christian militia in south Lebanon, are perhaps the most notorious. For members of the Defence Forces the events surrounding the killings - 25 years ago on April 18 - are an open sore and widely regarded as a crime.

Meanwhile, the Smallhorne and Barrett families have lived with the fact that the Lebanese gunman alleged to have murdered the privates is living freely in the US. This week they will receive letters detailing the latest Government plans to finally achieve justice.

Earlier this year, Defence Minister Willie O'Dea ordered a reopening of Government files with a view to examining whether the chief suspect can be prosecuted either in Ireland or abroad. He is Mahmoud Bazzi, today working in the city of Dearborn, Michigan, and believed to be a naturalised US citizen. Bazzi was tracked down by an RTE Prime Time team in 2000 and denied the murders.

However, he has been identified as a leader of the Lebanese Christian militia that intercepted the two Irish men and another private, John O'Mahony, as they were on their way to service an isolated UN outpost on April 18, 1980. With them in their small convoy were two UN observers - one of them an American officer - as well as a reporter and a photographer.

After the convoy was ambushed by gunmen and the men captured and disarmed, the Irish were separated from the others. Pte O'Mahony was then shot a number of times with one of the Irish soldiers' own weapons. He survived. Pte Smallhorne and Pte Barrett were taken away and executed. Bazzi is believed to have carried out the killings in revenge for the death of a relative during clashes between militia and UN troops in the village of At Tiri.

An examination of the case some years ago by the Attorney General (AG) highlighted some of the complex legal difficulties involved. He advised that an international convention on the safety of UN personnel that came into force in 1999 did not apply retrospectively and provided no assistance for Bazzi's prosecution by Ireland. The AG also advised that extradition proceedings would have to be initiated by the country where the crime was committed and that there was no extradition treaty between the US and Lebanon.

Amid the file's reopening, all information from the Defence Forces and Departments of Foreign Affairs and Defence has once again been provided to the AG to see if it is possible to mount a case against Bazzi or if further evidence might be obtained.

Among avenues now being explored by the AG are the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, while the Department of Foreign Affairs is liaising with the UN about the possibility of releasing a confidential UN report to the US authorities.

But relatives of the dead men, as well as John O'Mahony, remain sceptical about the chances of justice being achieved and point to murky questions that remain to be answered. "The 25 years have been very frustrating, but I have always believed that if the political will was there, it could be done," says Pte Smallhorne's son, also Derek, who visited Lebanon in 2000.

"The dogs in the street knew that it was Bazzi. It was revenge for his brother. But the difference is that his brother had a gun in his hand. My father and Thomas Barrett did not. They did not have a choice. Bazzi is now an American. Bush is leading the war against terror, yet this man is there and he is a murderer."

Years of real or perceived inaction by the Government and the Defence Forces in terms of pursuing the case or aiding the families after the deaths have taken their toll. "If the decision comes down to the Defence Forces I can't see them going after him," says Derek Smallhorne, who believes that uncomfortable details are effectively being covered up. He recalls that when media interest in the case was high several years ago, the family just had to ring the Department of Defence in order to secure a meeting. "But as soon as it stopped, they did not want to know."

Like others, he also points an accusing finger at Israel for helping Bazzi to leave Lebanon and set up a new life, and refers to claims that an Israeli intelligence agent witnessed the killings. Recently, the Smallhorne family were contacted by a Lebanese man who lived and worked in the area where the UN operated and who claims to be able to provide new witnesses.

John O'Mahony, who lives in Kerry, says he is also ready to come forward again and give evidence, including identifying Bazzi. "I knew Bazzi very well. I had a couple of previous encounters with him and with the Israeli. I had been held up a few times before," he says. "I am 99% sure I won't forget his features." He adds: "No government official has approached me to ask if I would give evidence."

Despite hoping that the Barrett and Smallhorne families will get justice, the former soldier is not optimistic that the alleged killer will be brought to justice by the Irish authorities. "As they go deep they may find something that they don't like. Bazzi is one aspect of it, but the question they never seem to answer is why did it happen?

"I can never understand why we were left in that position. It was known that there was a death threat out against the Irish. It was on the radio. The dogs in the street knew it.... if we were caught behind the lines we would be killed.

"There is a lot more out there that we are not aware of. The further, deeper that Minister O'Dea is going to go down - will he come up against a blank wall?" asks Mr O'Mahony, who speaks of missing or hidden logbooks and records.

But while he says that the Defence Forces might close ranks, he adds: "Maybe the time might be there to reopen it, if they are prepared to release army records and files. There are still people around who might be held accountable."

For its part, a Defence Forces spokesperson states that it carried out "exhaustive enquiries" into the killings before complicated legal issues were handed on to the Attorney General and the Department of Defence.

"The Defence Forces did everything that was possible in terms of pursuing this. It's not a closed case. It's still ongoing. We would feel for the families. We would never give up hope."

'Blood for blood' killings of Irish troops

When privates Smallhorne, Barrett and O'Mahony left base on April 18, 1980 it was against the backdrop of major tensions between the UN's Irish contingent and the local Israeli-backed Lebanese Christian militia.

At least one militiaman had been killed and an Irish soldier fatally injured in recent clashes at the village of At Tiri, where Irish and Dutch troops withstood attempts to remove the UN presence. Afterwards, the militia's radio station had broadcast threats against the Irish. One particular Lebanese family was said to be aggrieved at the loss of a son, and 'blood for blood' was demanded.

It was during this time that the privates were ordered to drive through militia-held territory and service a UN post near the Israeli border. They were unaccompanied by an Irish officer but with them were two journalists and two UN observers from France and the US.

The US officer, Harry Klein, admitted in 2000 that the operation was not properly planned and should have been co-ordinated with militia leaders and the Israelis. He added that helicopters could have been used instead to resupply the post.

The convoy also went ahead without an escort and Klein ordered it to continue even after warning signs became apparent along the route when it passed through a normally busy militia checkpoint. Ultimately, it was intercepted by the militia, who brought the convoy's occupants to a derelict schoolhouse before removing the Irish. As they were led away, one agitated gunman in a black shirt who had been shouting "my brother, my brother" opened fire on John O'Mahony. Pte O'Mahony survived, although he was seriously injured, but his two colleagues were recaptured after trying to escape. Pte Barrett and Pte Smallhorne were bundled into a car, driven away and shot dead in an unknown destination.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Also in this section