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The official investigation into the devastating explosion at Beirut port last year must push forward despite deliberate obstruction by Lebanon’s politicians and should be supported by a UN fact-finding mission, human rights activists told The National on the anniversary of the blast.
“This case really feels like the case that can break the regime,” said Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer who heads the litigation department at Lebanese watchdog Legal Agenda.
“We are now understanding, society as a whole, what it means to have a judiciary that is strong enough to face politicians.”
Legal documents, interviews and statements seen by The National show the finance and interior ministries, security agencies – including the Lebanese army, State Security, General Security – and the Higher Defence Council chaired by the president and vice-chaired by the prime minister were all informed of the danger posed by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut port.
Although these documents show lots of discussion over who had custody of the chemicals, what should be done with them and where they should be kept, they were still there on August 4, 2020, when they exploded, killing at least 214 people.
One of the reasons for this systematic failure to act may be found in the set-up of Beirut’s port, which operates with several security agencies working in parallel and a management board not audited by the government whose six members were appointed to represent the country's religious sects rather than for experience in running ports.
“The port’s governance structure created the conditions for corruption and mismanagement to flourish,” said Lama Fakih, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch on Tuesday at the launch of a 127-page investigation report into the blast. “Lebanon’s main political parties … benefited from the port’s ambiguous status and poor governance and accountability structures.”
Former Finance Ministry director Alain Bifani told The National that his attempts to create a legal framework for the port during his 20-year tenure were rejected by MPs.
“In this country, you have a lot of black boxes,” he said.
One of the six members of the board, Christian Char, defended its track record and said they were not responsible for the dangerous goods that caused the blast. He said that the board members were chosen from people who “are well-known and have integrity”.
But the board was also responsible for infrastructure development at the port, which would normally include building adequate storage space for dangerous chemicals such as the ammonium nitrate blamed for the blast.
“We should have received proper instructions from the Lebanese army … and experts at the port on how to store [the chemicals]," Mr Char told The National. “We don’t have a clue how to store explosive materials.”
Mr Char did not deny “any responsibility” but said the judiciary, customs and security organisations must be scrutinised first.
He hinted that officials had been planning to dispose of the chemicals in hangar 12, but never did.
“And you know years passed and they didn’t ... there were no signs of immediate danger,” he said.
Port employees regularly accuse customs of corruption and of negligence.
One employee at the port told The National that in 2014 he was able to access the ammonium nitrate as it was being unloaded from the ship that brought it to Beirut. He says he still has plastic bags containing handfuls of the chemical that he uses at home to fertilise his garden. Customs authorities declined interview requests.
All officials questioned by HRW and The National deflected blame. Politicians have so far not responded or refused to lift the immunity of top officials so that they can be questioned by investigative judge Tarek Bitar. He replaced Fadi Sawan in February after two MPs, both suspects, complained to the Court of Cassation and had him removed from the investigation.
Mr Bitar is facing similar opposition but Ms Frangieh said that he has used a different methodology to avoid legal loopholes that were used against Mr Sawan.
“That regime of impunity caused the blast, and it’s trying to stop the investigation into the blast. We expected it,” Ms Frangieh said.
Lebanon’s post-civil war amnesty law issued in 1990 pardoned all war crimes or crimes against humanity except those committed against senior officials. This was a turning point in the country’s history, Ms Frangieh said. “Their life always meant much more than ours,” she said.
Local media reported that Mr Bitar said early in June that he was studying three options: that welding work caused an accidental fire that ignited the chemicals; that the fire was ignited on purpose; or that the explosion was caused by a missile.
A judicial source told Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour last month that a confidential French report on the blast sent to Mr Bitar excluded a missile attack.
The owner of the company that sent welders to Warehouse 12 where the ammonium nitrate was stored on August 4 has been detained. His sister, Guita Chebli, however, downplayed the idea that welding caused the fire that caused the blast and hinted at sabotage, without offering any proof.
“The door remained close and they worked with a 15 ampere machine on a battery [which does not emit sparks]," she told The National. She questioned why pictures of the workers, who are in pre-trial detention with her brother Selim Chebli, circulated in the media the day after the explosion.
“Why would they photograph themselves while welding? It was a big scenario prepared by somebody.”
Finding the truth could take years.
Mr Bitar is working alone with a handful of trainee judges. Previous investigations into high-profile assassinations have stretched on for up to three decades and ended mostly with rulings made in the absence of any culprit.
“It’s definitely a lot of pressure on one person, but it’s also a very important milestone in our history,” Ms Frangieh said. “It will determine the future of our country: we continue in the cycle of impunity or we break it.”
Legal Agenda, HRW and some families of victims of the blast are calling for a fact-finding mission by the UN Human Rights Council, which will hold its next session in September.
The investigation, which would not be a criminal trial, would examine whether there was an offence against the right to life, education and health, HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said on Tuesday.
This could lay the foundation for later criminal action in any country with jurisdiction – there are already two prosecutions regarding the blast under way, in France and Germany.
“Foreign prosecutors are not bound by the archaic laws of impunity in Lebanon,” Mr Roth said.
“If Lebanese officials are found guilty in foreign courts, they could then face international arrest warrants to ensure that justice is done.”