US arrest may bring prosecution for murder of Irish soldiers

Thirty-four on, the man eyewitnesses allege is responsible faces possible deportation

Wed, Jul 30, 2014, 08:39

John O’Mahony has no doubt that Mahmoud Bazzi is the man who shot him. The Co Kerry farmer was one of three Irish soldiers abducted while serving with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) on April 18th, 1980.

O’Mahony was shot twice but survived. The other two – privates Derek Smallhorne and Thomas Barrett – did not. They were tortured and executed, allegedly by Bazzi. The men were just a week away from finishing their tours and returning to Ireland.

Smallhorne and Barrett are among 47 Irish soldiers who have been killed serving in the UN peacekeeping force since 1978. Their killings were among the more horrific of Ireland’s history in Lebanon.

Tomorrow Bazzi (71), a former militia with the South Lebanese Army (SLA) in 1980, is scheduled to appear before a United States immigration judge in Detroit, Michigan, on passport violations.

He was arrested on July 15th in nearby Dearborn, a Middle Eastern community where he has worked driving an ice cream van for years.

“I don’t think it is a face that I will ever forget,” said O’Mahony (62) of Bazzi, speaking by phone from his farm in Scartaglin, Co Kerry.

The retired Irish soldier was in a group driving a convoy through an area of south Lebanon controlled by the SLA, a Christian militia group led by the Israeli-backed Major Saad Haddad in 1980.

The militia force controlled the area, fighting the Palestine Liberation Organisation as a buffer to prevent direct attacks on Israel to the south.

The UN peacekeeping force was assigned to keep the warring factions apart.

That day the convoy was told to bring supplies to Maroun al-Ras, on the border with Israel. O’Mahony and particularly Barrett were nervous because 12 days earlier there had been clashes between Haddad’s men and the UN force of Irish and Dutch peacekeepers which had resulted in the death of a militia man and an Irish soldier.

Tensions high

Tensions were running high. A message was broadcast on the Christian radio station Voice of Hope, controlled by Haddad, that the slain man’s family was looking to avenge his death by taking two Irish lives or, failing that, be recompensed to the tune of $10,000. Bazzi was later identified as a relative of the dead militia.

Travelling with the soldiers were Associated Press journalist Steve Hindy, an American, and a photographer working with him, and two military observers, Harry Klein from the US, and Patrick Vincent from France.

Hindy, who along with O’Mahony, is one of only two living eyewitnesses to the events of that day, recalled the party being abducted by “a man dressed in black who was very emotional”. He was shouting: “My brother, my brother. You killed my brother,” Hindy said .

They were brought to a bombed primary school where, in a toilet, they were asked their nationalities.

Hindy said a man, who was later identified as Mahmoud Bazzi, separated the three Irish soldiers from the group and walked them out of the toilet, into a corridor and down a stairway. That’s where the shooting began.

“He fired at me and I was the first hit, and while he was firing at me, the other two made a dash for it,” said O’Mahony.

“I fell to the ground. He fired another burst of gunfire, seven or eight rounds with the bare squeeze of a trigger.”

Hindy said he and Klein helped O’Mahony, who had been hit in the leg and stomach, after he stumbled into the hallway.

While helping him, the journalist saw Bazzi and another gunman driving away in a Peugeot 404 with Smallhorne and Barrett in the back. “That was the last we ever saw of them,” he said.

‘Sheer terror’

The men’s bodies were discovered later. Hindy recalls the look of fear on one of the soldier’s faces as he was being driven away by Bazzi. “I believe it was Barrett who was sitting in the back seat behind the driver. He craned his neck looking back at us with a look of sheer terror on his face,” he said.

Barrett (30) from Cork, was married with three daughters, aged six, four and two. Smallhorne (31), a married man from Dublin, had a nine-year-old son and two daughters, aged seven and three.

O’Mahony said he had encountered Bazzi before the day of the shootings and that he “got to know him fairly well – he had a very distinguished marking of white on his black hair”.

A journalist with the Detroit Free Press newspaper, Jim Schaefer, visited O’Mahony in Ireland earlier this year and showed him a recent photograph of Bazzi. “The marking is still there,” said the Co Kerry man.

Bazzi confessed to the killings in the days after the murders, telling reporters at a news conference that he killed the Irish men in revenge for the death of his brother 12 days earlier in the clash with UN troops.

He has since changed his story. Before his arrest this month, he told Schaefer he was innocent of kidnapping the Irish soldiers, of shooting O’Mahony and of killing Smallhorne and Barrett. He told the journalist leaders of the Christian militia had threatened to kill him if he didn’t go on television and confess to the killings.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement will not comment on whether Bazzi will face charges linked to the killings of the two men, though a spokesman for the Detroit office of ICE told the Detroit Free Press the “allegations of what happened in Lebanon factor heavily in our investigation and our efforts to remove him”.

The US Department of Homeland Security will start a process in a US federal court tomorrow with the aim of deporting Bazzi back to his native Lebanon, apparently on offences related to how he entered the US more than two decades ago using someone else’s passport.

O’Mahony and Hindy were contacted by the US Department of Justice about Bazzi more than a decade ago, following an RTÉ Prime Time programme which traced the Lebanese man to his adopted home in Michigan in 2000, and again several years after that. Those investigations came to nothing. This left Hindy flummoxed.

“At my last meeting with investigators I said, ‘I don’t get it – I identified this guy.’ They told me that other participants had identified him as well. I asked point blank if someone was protecting him. They looked around the table and smiled and said they weren’t at liberty to say in the investigation,” said the former journalist.

Minister for Defence Simon Coveney is monitoring the case closely, though the Irish Government cannot participate in this week’s legal proceedings in Detroit as they relate to immigration law rather than the events that occurred in Lebanon in 1980.

Eamon Saunders, the justice and home affairs councillor at the Irish Embassy in Washington, is due to attend tomorrow’s hearing as an observer for the Government.

Bazzi’s arrest, 34 years after the deaths of their loved ones, stunned the Barrett and Smallhorne families.

“It was a complete shock,” said Karen Barrett, who was six years old at the time of her father’s killing. “We are still in a bit of disbelief now.”

She said the families feared Bazzi would be held up in red tape in the US or deported to “another safe haven”, but they wanted him to be held to account for what he was alleged to have done, possibly in the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague after his deportation to Lebanon.

“We still live in hope but that is hope 34 years in the making,” said Barrett.

“Until the day we hear that Bazzi is being held for what he did to my father, I don’t think we will accept anything less,” she said.

The Irish Government wants the Lebanese man to be returned to his home country. Taoiseach Enda Kenny raised the issue with Lebanese authorities when he visited Irish Unifil personnel in June.

“The question of where and whether Mr Bazzi will be deported to is one for the US authorities rather than for Ireland,” a spokeswoman for Coveney said. “However, Lebanon is the country with primary jurisdiction in this case.”

Willing to testify

O’Mahony and Hindy have both been approached more recently by US investigators. The men said they are willing to testify against Bazzi. Hindy, now a brewery owner in Brooklyn, New York, said that as a journalist he felt uncomfortable becoming part of the story but he could not wash his hands of it.

“I just couldn’t walk away from it. I know the families of those two guys were devastated. I can understand how that loss would have a tragic effect on a family. I had to stand up and say what I saw,” he said.

O’Mahony also wants to see justice done for the Smallhorne and Barrett families, to “put it to rest”.

“It has been a lifetime,” he said.

He said he will have no problem pointing Bazzi out to investigators.

“He shot me not once but twice and that is all I can tell. If I am asked to attend a line-out, I will be the most surprised man in the world if I don’t pick him out.”