A year later, politicians accused of obstructing justice in Beirut | Beirut explosion
Beirut, Lebanon – A year after a massive explosion at the port of Beirut devastated the Lebanese capital, the grieving families of the victims are still awaiting answers, accountability and justice.
More than 200 people were killed and 6,500 injured when hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer stored in the port for six years ignited on August 4, 2020, during one of the most great non-nuclear explosions in history.
Human rights groups and the families of the victims accused the country’s leaders of obstructing Judge Tarek Bitar’s investigation, which was launched shortly after the disaster.
A Lebanese court dismissed his predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawwan, in February after indicting three former ministers and outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab with criminal negligence.
“We were convinced that Lebanese judges of integrity could conduct an investigation,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his younger brother, 46-year-old port firefighter Tharwat Hoteit, in the blast.
“Judge Bitar has proven that he has integrity, but the problem is, we don’t have honorable politicians.”
Hoteit is part of an association of families who lost loved ones in the disaster. They pressured parliament to compensate their families and organized regular protests calling on the authorities to allow the investigation to continue.
So far, 25 people have been arrested in connection with the explosion – most of them employees and junior and middle-level port officials. Thirteen have been released, while the head of customs Badri Daher and the head of the Beirut Port Authority Hasan Kraytem remain in detention.
Authorities have so far rejected Bitar’s requests to lift the immunity of several high-ranking lawmakers and security chiefs so that they can be questioned on suspicion of criminal negligence, as well as manslaughter with probable intent. .
Officials include Major General Abbas Ibrahim, Major General for State Security, Major General for State Security Tony Saliba, former Minister of Finance Ali Hasan Khalil, former ministers of the Public works Ghazi Zeiter and Yousef Finianos and the former Minister of the Interior Nohad Machnouk.
At the end of July, at least 50 MPs approved a motion to lift the immunity of Zeiter, Khalil and Machnouk, who are currently MPs, so that they can be questioned and potentially tried before the Supreme Council, a judicial body responsible for matters. of impeachment.
However, victims’ families and activist lawyers criticized the move as an attempt to protect officials in Bitar’s jurisdiction, as the Supreme Council includes members of parliament and has never held a trial in its history.
MPs told Al Jazeera they were simply following the country’s constitution.
“Parliament is very interested in lifting immunity, but in accordance with the law,” said Vice President Elie Ferzli
However, Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer and co-founder of the rights group Legal Agenda, accused Lebanese politicians and security officials of using and interpreting the laws to work in the best interests of their fellow parliamentarians, many of whom come from the same political parties.
“The judge should be the decision maker here and not the MPs,” Saghieh told Al Jazeera, adding that he feared “total impunity”.
“The political institutions did not cooperate with the judge,” he said.
In the face of growing pressure and campaigns against them, a number of political leaders, including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and President Nabih Berri, have called for the lifting of civil servants’ immunity. But Saghieh and other activist lawyers are skeptical of whether this will actually lead to substantial action, with families still concerned that authorities will seek to protect current and former ministers by protecting them from Bitar’s jurisdiction.
Over the past year, the rhetoric of families towards government has changed. Initially, most relatives appealed to the authorities for their cooperation and support in good faith, staging largely calm and solemn protests and press conferences. However, in recent months, they have publicly challenged those responsible and blamed them for what they say is a cover-up of the investigation. In mid-July, relatives protested in front of the residence of Acting Interior Minister Mohamad Fahmi and clashed with riot police who beat them and other protesters with batons and threw tear gas on them.
On Monday morning, they gave the government 30 hours to lift the civil servants’ immunity, otherwise “the bones will break”.
Hoteit said he had received “personal threats” on two occasions because of the protests he helped organize and his harsh criticism of the government.
In one case, he said men on motorcycles approached him on the street. “They said to me, ‘You talk too much, be careful,'” Hoteit told Al Jazeera.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch released a damning report on the disaster, claiming that Lebanese officials, including former finance, public works, and transport ministers, “violated the right to life” by failing to care not properly cargo of ammonium nitrate in previous years. to the explosion.
“Official correspondence shows that officials from the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Public Works and Transport failed to adequately investigate the combustible nature of the ship’s cargo and its danger,” said the director of crises and conflict organization, Lama Fakih, at a press conference. “Not only the port, but also customs officials and the military ignored the steps they could have taken to destroy or dispose of ammonium nitrate. “
Many questions remain to be resolved for Bitar.
An FBI report could not determine the cause of the explosion, but found that only 552 of 2,754 tons of ammonium nitrate had exploded. It is not known what happened to the rest of the cargo, although legal sources say there were suspicions of theft.
Some politicians and activists have claimed that ammonium nitrate was smuggled into Syria for use as an explosive in the conflict.
“Judge Bitar has asked countries with satellites to send images of the Port of Beirut to help with the investigation,” a legal source told Al Jazeera. “Nobody answered.”
Lebanese media and journalists played a major role in trying to piece together what happened over the past six years leading up to the explosion.
Among them is Al Jadeed TV journalist and producer Firas Hatoum, whose report said the shipment of ammonium nitrate could be linked to Syrian businessmen with close ties to President Bashar al- Assad.
“Unfortunately, in a country like Lebanon, the media have a big role to play in pressuring the government to act,” Hatoum told Al Jazeera. “The more corruption there is, the more responsibility the media has to investigate it. “
There are still several questions to which families and the general public are waiting to be answered.
The Port of Beirut has a number of security and government agencies, from state security to military intelligence, general security and customs. Documents revealed that not only did all of these agencies know about ammonium nitrate for the past six years, but also President Michel Aoun, Acting Prime Minister Hassan Diab, several former public works and transport ministers, former Minister of Finance Ali Hasan Khalil. , and even justice.
They all say they have done their duty within their powers to make sure the case is resolved, but activists fear the details will remain obscure if they are not brought to court.
Whether a local investigation will do justice to the families is a matter of debate not only among the Lebanese population as a whole, but even among the affected families themselves. But, one thing they seem to agree on is their support for Bitar, and it appears to have taken the country’s political leadership by surprise.
MP Gebran Bassil, who heads the Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement, told a press conference on Monday that Bitar should assure officials he wishes to summon for questioning he has not already scheduled to ” issue an arrest warrant in advance.
Hatoum fears that as long as Lebanese officials hamper Bitar’s efforts, the international community will not be so cooperative when it comes to sharing important information, such as satellite images, or prosecuting possible suspects in the country. foreigner.
“The authorities are not setting a good example,” Hatoum said.
“If the authorities here don’t respond to Judge Bitar, then how can we expect the same from those overseas?”