A year on, politicians accused of hindering Beirut blast justice

Rights groups and families of victims accuse officials of stalling the probe into the devastating port explosion.

Families of Beirut blast victims give a press statement by the port during the four-month commemoration of the blast, December 2020 [File: Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]

Beirut, Lebanon – A year after a massive explosion at Beirut Port devastated the Lebanese capital, the victims’ grieving families are still waiting for answers, accountability and justice.

More than 200 people were killed and 6,500 wounded when hundreds of tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate fertiliser stored in the port for six years ignited on August 4, 2020, in what was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

Human rights groups and families of the victims have accused the country’s leadership of obstructing Judge Tarek Bitar’s investigation, which was launched shortly after the disaster.

A Lebanese court had removed his predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawwan, in February, after he charged three former ministers and outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab with criminal negligence.

“We had faith that Lebanese judges with integrity could carry out an investigation,” Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his younger brother, 46-year-old port firefighter Tharwat Hoteit, in the explosion.

“Judge Bitar proved he has integrity, but the problem is that we don’t have honourable politicians.”

Hoteit is part of an association of families who lost relatives in the disaster. They have lobbied Parliament to compensate their families and have held regular protests calling on officials to allow the probe to continue.

So far, 25 people have been detained in connection with the explosion – mostly junior and mid-level port workers and officials. Thirteen have been released, while Head of Customs Badri Daher and head of the Beirut Port Authority Hasan Kraytem are still being held.

Officials have so far rejected Bitar’s requests to lift the immunity of several high-ranking lawmakers and security chiefs so they can be questioned on the suspicion of criminal negligence, as well as homicide with probable intent.

The officials include General Security chief Major-General Abbas Ibrahim, State Security head Major-General Tony Saliba, ex-Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, former Public Works Ministers Ghazi Zeiter and Yousef Finianos, and ex-Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk.

A protester holds up a picture of three-year-old Alexandra Naggar, who was killed in the explosion [File: Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]

‘Total impunity’

In late July, at least 50 MPs endorsed a motion to lift the immunity of Zeiter, Khalil and Machnouk, who are currently MPs, so they could be questioned and potentially tried at the Supreme Council, a judicial body charged with matters of impeachment.

However, the families of the victims and lawyer activists criticised the move as an attempt to shield officials from Bitar’s jurisdiction, as the Supreme Council comprises members of parliament and has never conducted a trial in its history.

MPs told Al Jazeera they are simply following the country’s constitution.

“Parliament is very interested in lifting immunity, but in line with the law,” said Deputy Speaker Elie Ferzli

However, Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer and co-founder of rights group Legal Agenda, accused Lebanese political and security officials of using and interpreting laws to work in the best interest of fellow parliamentarians, many of whom hail from the same political parties.

“The judge should be the decision-maker here and not the MPs,” Saghieh told Al Jazeera, adding he fears “total impunity”.

“Political institutions have not been cooperating 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 Speaker Nabih Berri, have called for lifting the immunity of officials. But Saghieh and other activist lawyers are sceptical as to whether this will actually lead to any substantial action, with families still concerned that authorities will seek to protect current and former ministers by shielding them from Bitar’s jurisdiction.

Over the past year, the families’ rhetoric towards the government has changed. Initially, most relatives appealed to the authorities for cooperation and support in good faith, holding protests and news conferences that were largely quiet and solemn. However, in recent months, they have publicly called out officials and blamed them for what they say is a cover-up of the investigation. In mid-July, relatives protested at caretaker Minister of the Interior Mohamad Fahmi’s residence and scuffled with riot police who beat them and other protesters with batons and lobbed tear gas at them.

On Monday morning, they gave the government 30 hours to lift officials’ immunity, or else “bones will break”.

Hoteit said he has received “personal threats” on two occasions because of the protests he helped organise and his outspoken criticism of the government.

In one instance, he said men on motorcycles approached him on the street. “They told me: ‘You’re talking too much, be careful,’” Hoteit told Al Jazeera.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch released a damning report into the disaster, saying Lebanese officials including former finance and public works and transport ministers have “violated the right to life” by not adequately addressing and taking care of the ammonium nitrate cargo in the years leading to the explosion.

“Official correspondence reflects, the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Public Works and Transport officials failed to adequately investigate the combustible nature of the ship’s cargo and its danger,” the organisation’s Crisis and Conflict Director Lama Fakih said at a news conference . “Not just port, but also customs and army officials have ignored steps they could have taken to destroy or clear the ammonium nitrate.”

Graffiti in downtown Beirut: ‘You literally blew us up, we live to kill you’ [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]

Questions remain

Many questions remain for Bitar to figure out.

An FBI report could not conclude the cause of the explosion but found that just 552 of the 2,754 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded. It is unclear what happened to the rest of the shipment, though legal sources say there has been suspicion of theft.

Some politicians and activists have claimed the ammonium nitrate was smuggled into Syria to be used as explosives in the conflict.

“Judge Bitar requested from countries with satellites to send imagery of the Beirut Port to help with the investigation,” a legal source told Al Jazeera. “No one has responded.”

The Lebanese media and journalists have played a major role in trying to piece together what happened over the past six years that led to the explosion.

Among them is Al Jadeed TV journalist and producer Firas Hatoum, whose reporting has indicated that the ammonium nitrate shipment could be linked to Syrian businessmen with close ties to President Bashar al-Assad.

“Unfortunately in a country like Lebanon, the media has a big role to play in pressuring the government to take action,” Hatoum told Al Jazeera. “The more there is corruption, the more responsibility is on the media to investigate it.”

There are still several questions the families and the wider public are waiting to have answered.

Beirut Port has a number of security and government agencies present, from State Security to military intelligence to General Security to Customs. Documents revealed that not only were all these agencies aware of the ammonium nitrate over the past six years, but so were President Michel Aoun, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, several ex-ministers of public works and transportation, ex-Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, and even the judiciary.

They all claim they did their duty within their powers to ensure the matter was addressed, but activists fear the details will remain murky if not brought out in court.

Whether a local investigation will bring about justice for the families is a matter of debate among not just the Lebanese population at large, but even the impacted families themselves. But, one thing they seem to agree on is their support for Bitar, and it appears that it has startled the country’s political leadership.

MP Gebran Bassil, who leads the Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement, said in a news conference on Monday that Bitar should assure officials he wants to summon for interrogation that he has not already planned on issuing an arrest warrant in advance.

Hatoum fears that as long as Lebanese officials obstruct Bitar’s efforts, the international community will not be as cooperative when it comes to sharing important information, such as satellite images, or going after possible suspects abroad.

“The authorities aren’t 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 abroad?”

Source: Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera and news agencies