Jailed journalist in Lebanon asks Chirac for help

BEIRUT, Sep 21 (AFP) - A Lebanese journalist arrested in a crackdown on anti-Syrian Christians for alleged links with Israel and who could face the death penalty has written to French President Jacques Chirac to ask for help.

"If I did not believe firmly in freedom and democracy in France, I would not have written this letter to ask for your particular attention during your meetings with Lebanese officials," Habib Younes, managing editor of the Beirut edition of the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, said in an open letter published by the French-language daily L'Orient-Le Jour on Friday.

Chirac is expected to be among the 55 leaders who attend the October 26-28 meeting in Beirut of French-speaking nations.

"I am accused of having contacts with the Israeli enemy in Cyprus, which is punishable under Lebanese law. However, my entire life proves to what point I am attached to the respect of Lebanese law," said Younes, who was a Christian militant during the country's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

He was arrested on August 18 by army intelligence services during a sweeping crackdown against Christian groups opposed to Syria's political and military dominance over their country.

He was charged, along with another journalist, with "contacts with the Israeli enemy," which can still draw the death penalty despite the Jewish state's withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000 after 22 years.

Younes noted to Chirac that he now "expected to miss his professional duty" during the International Francophonie Organisation (OIF) summit because of the serious charges facing him.

He also told the French president that he was asking for his freedom to say "goodbye" to his "gravely ill father."

Antoine Bassil, a correspondent for Saudi-owned MBC radio, was also arrested in early August in moves that were condemned by several nations, including France, and by press freedom groups.