ADDOUSSIEH, Lebanon (AP) — A prominent Lebanese publisher and vocal critic of the Shiite militant Hezbollah group was found shot dead in his car on Thursday morning, a brazen killing that sparked fears of a return to political violence in this country gripped by social and economic upheaval.
The body of 58-year-old Lokman Slim, a longtime Shiite political activist and researcher, was slumped over on the passenger seat with multiple wounds from gunshots fired at close range, security and forensic officials said.
He had been missing for hours since late Wednesday and his family posted social media messages looking for him.
To his friends, Slim was a fearless critic of Lebanon's powerful politicians, Hezbollah and its allies Iran and Syria, and a major resource on the history of Lebanon's civil war. His killing raised fears that Lebanon’s political tensions could turn into a new wave of assassinations.
Critics, however, accused Slim of sowing sedition, undermining national unity and being a Zionist because of his criticisms of Hezbollah.
“He was carrying the weight of this country on his shoulder,” his sister Rasha al-Ameer told reporters at their home after the news of the killing broke. She said she has no faith in local investigations and that the family would carry out its own private forensic probe.
“Up until today in the history of Lebanon, all investigations have led to a dead end,” she told reporters. His wife, Monika Borgmann, standing next to al-Ameer, called for an international probe. “This killer has to be punished,” Borgmann said.
Security forces found Slim's car on a rural road near the southern village of Addoussieh, in Sidon province. He was visiting friends in a southern village and was heading back to Beirut in the evening.
Afif Khafajeh, a coroner who inspected Slim's body, said there were six bullets in Slim's body — three in the head, one in the chest and one in the back. Blood was splattered over the passenger car seat.
A security official at the scene said Slim's ID, phone and gun were missing. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. His phone was later found.
Lebanon has a history of political crimes and violence. With rising tension amid deepening political dispute and economic crisis, officials have warned of a return of violence and assassinations.
Earlier, Slim's wife and sister had posted on social media that he had not answered his phone for hours. Al-Ameer said he left this friends' house after 8 pm. The family began to worry when two hours later he still wasn't back home.
Al-Ameer hinted that Hezbollah was behind the killing, without naming the group, adding that it is known who controls the area where her brother was found dead. “Killing for them is a habit," she said. Hezbollah and its allies dominate the area in southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah condemned Slim's killing, calling for a swift investigation. It also urged security agencies to combat crimes it said have spread around Lebanon and which have been “exploited politically and by the media at the expense of security and domestic stability" — a jab at their critics.
Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi, speaking to local TV station MTV, called it a “horrific crime." Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab deplored the “heinous crime” and vowed a speedy investigation.
But in Lebanon, perpetrators of political violence or corruption are almost never identified or prosecuted. An investigation into the massive explosion in the Beirut port that killed 211 people and disfigured the capital last August still has not uncovered what caused it and who is responsible.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the killing, calling it “cowardly and unacceptable to resort to violence, threats, and intimidation as a means of subverting the rule of law or suppressing freedom of expression and civic activism.” He urged Lebanese officials to act quickly to bring those response to justice.
U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea said Slim spoke publicly and privately about threats made against his life but continued his work, pushing for justice, accountability and rule of law in Lebanon. She called the killing an attack on Lebanon itself and urged a speedy inquiry.
“In a country that so desperately needs to recover from the multiple crises it faces, political assassinations send exactly the wrong signal to the world about what Lebanon stands for," she said.
The U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis also called for a quick investigation.
“This investigation must not follow the pattern of the Beirut port blast investigation that 6 months on remains inconclusive and without accountability. People must know the truth,” Kubis tweeted.
Amnesty International's deputy director in the region, Lynn Maalouf, said Slim was the “victim of this decades-old pattern of impunity which has ensured that past and present targeted killings of activists, journalists and intellectuals remain unpunished, and for which the Lebanese state is ultimately responsible.” She also called on Lebanon to ensure a transparent investigation into the killing.
Slim was born in Beirut's southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, where he lived all his life. He returned from abroad to the house, when most people were leaving, during the 2006 war with Israel, when the suburbs were being bombed.
He founded Umam, a research and film production house with a library documenting Lebanon's and Shiite history. His family owns a publishing house and Slim hosted public debates and political forums and art shows, including exhibitions documenting the civil war's missing. He and his wife worked on a film documenting the atrocities of Syria's notorious Tadmor prison.
In 2009, he and his wife organized a private viewing at their center for an Oscar-nominated anti-war Israeli cartoon about Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the rise of the then-President Bachir Gemayel, in defiance of Hezbollah and Lebanese authorities, which banned it.
Slim also set up Haya Bina, or “Let's go," a group that encouraged participation in 2005 parliamentary elections, called for changes to Lebanon's sectarian-based system, and taught women English.
“It is a big tragedy,” said Makram Rabah, a close friend and history lecturer. “Anyone who knows Lokman they know who his enemies are.”
Rabah said he and Slim were strong opponents of Hezbollah's grip on power and called for sovereignty and diversity in Lebanon. They were both attacked by a group of young men during a public debate at the height of anti-government protests in 2019. Slim at the time accused Hezbollah supporters of being behind the attack.
Slim also accused Hezbollah supporters days before that attack of threatening him at his home, holding rallies and hanging posters on its walls accusing him of treason.
Alex Rowell, editor of the English language al-Jumhuriya website, said Slim always believed he was safe from physical harm. His killing would leave many unable to sleep easily in Lebanon, Rowell said.
“In the memory of Lokman’s fearless grin, however, they may find courage — and in the silhouettes of his cowardly murderers they may know their enemy,” he said.
El Deeb reported from Beirut.