ALBIREH, Lebanon (Reuters) - A Lebanese Islamist whose arrest on suspicion of helping arm Syrian rebels sparked deadly sectarian fighting in Lebanon says his release shows Lebanese authorities cannot afford to anger Sunni Muslims who back their co-religionists fighting in Syria
Shadi al-Moulawi, freed on bail on Tuesday after being charged with membership of a “terrorist group”, said authorities had gone too far in pressuring Sunnis in north Lebanon, which Damascus says is a base for attacks inside Syria.
“It’s well known that the Sunnis in Lebanon have been facing many different forms of pressure since 2006,” he said in an interview late on Wednesday in the northern province of Akkar, a redoubt of conservative Sunnis sympathetic to Syria’s rebels.
“This won’t do any longer,” Moulawi said. “The Sunnis will no longer stay quiet about the arrest of Islamists, attacks on religious leaders”.
He spoke after paying his respects to a Sunni cleric whose killing by Lebanese soldiers at a checkpoint in Akkar this week ignited protests which spread to the capital and escalated into its worst unrest in years.
In a mountaintop mosque draped with black banners emblazoned with the Muslim mantra “There is no god but God”, Moulawi, a stocky man in his late 20s with a short but thick beard, said Syria’s revolt also galvanized Sunnis in Lebanon.
“We ask almighty God to help this righteous revolution bring down the unjust Syrian regime, which has angered Muslims, not just in Syria but Lebanon as well. Almighty God has decreed our brothers in Syria should be liberated and our pride restored.”
Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims have seen their political influence eroded in recent years while the Shi’ite Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, has increased its authority since fighting Israel to a standstill in 2006.
Hezbollah supporters overwhelmed Sunni fighters in Beirut two years later, and the group’s political allies helped bring down the government of Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri last year.
Lebanese security forces apprehended Moulawi earlier this month after luring him to a clinic where a family member was to be treated, immediately sparking confrontations between Islamists and Lebanese troops in the port city of Tripoli.
That fighting rapidly expanded to include residents of adjacent Sunni and Alawite districts of the city, the latter home to supporters of Assad, and killed at least eight people.
Islamists who took to the streets after Moulawi’s arrest said he merely helped Syrians fleeing the conflict. He echoed that claim, dismissing accounts in Lebanese media he was arrested after prodding from U.S. officials citing intelligence linking him to al Qaeda.
“It’s laughable ... As for the question of my relationship with al Qaeda, the judge has established that I don’t have one,” he said. “They let me out on bail of 500,000 (Lebanese pounds, $333), that’s the best evidence that there is no credible charge to condemn Shadi al-Moulawi.”
He was quoted by Lebanese media at the time of his release disavowing a confession he said he had made under duress after being detained, and told Reuters interrogators threatened to detain members of his family.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Beirut said the U.S. mission was unaware of Moulawi prior to his arrest.
Judicial sources said Moulawi - who still faces charges despite his release on bail - was one of six accused people including a relative of a senior official from the Gulf state of Qatar, which has called for arming Syria’s rebels.
They said the Qatari was allowed to leave Lebanon with his charge still pending. Moulawi denied any relationship with that person, saying: “From the very beginning of the interrogation this name was never mentioned to me, at all.”
He also denied any role in funneling weapons to rebels in Syria, where 13 Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims were kidnapped this week by Syrian insurgents apparently seeking the release of rebel fighters held by Syrian authorities.
“That’s not our affair,” he said. “Ours is solely about supporting Syrian refugees, and finding them safe shelter and food. We leave this to the people of Syria, whose land it is.”
Writing by Joseph Logan; Editing by Sophie Hares