Beirut port blast protesters clash with police over delayed investigation

Windows smashed as Palais de Justice gate breached in demonstration against Lebanon's elite

Some protesters threw rocks at the justice building on Tuesday. Jamie Prentis / The National
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

A gate to the Lebanese Palais de Justice was breached on Tuesday by protesters angered by the delayed Beirut port blast investigation.

They clashed with riot police and smashed windows in the demonstration against Lebanon's elite.

The demonstration in the Lebanese capital had started peacefully, amid a delay of more than a year in the investigation by Judge Tarek Bitar.

Protesters held pictures of the victims and signs including one which read: “Each one of us can make a difference. We went a fully independent judiciary.”

A few dozen people — largely comprising those who lost loved ones in the blast, but also those angered at the actions of Lebanon's ruling classes — gathered outside the palace to protest the absence of justice and delays to the investigation.

Families say not enough has been done to bring those responsible for the blast to justice. Jamie Prentis / The National

Not long after, many in the crowd pushed through the gate and banged against the doors. A few threw rocks and other objects at the glass windows. Some shouted "thawra", reminiscent of the nationwide 2019 protests against Lebanon's ruling classes that led to the collapse of the then-government.

The absence of justice has compounded the grief felt after the 2020 explosion which happened after a huge stock of ammonium nitrate, left in storage at the port for years, caught fire.

Among those charged in connection with the blast investigation are two sitting MPs who have refused to attend hearings.

Mr Bitar, who also charged several top security officials in the matter and is the second judge to take on the case, has repeatedly been impeded by legal challenges from former Cabinet ministers.

More than 215 people died, thousands were injured and many parts of Beirut destroyed in the August 4 blast, which is regarded as a symptom of decades of corruption and mismanagement by Lebanon’s ruling elite.

“First of all we want to remind the ruling class that we are here — this is our first protest of 2023 with all the different groups and families,” said Paul Naggear, whose daughter Alexandra, three, was one of the youngest victims.

“We will never forget. We are here to keep pushing. We have to keep the message going all the time."

Waddeh Sadek, one of the new MPs elected last year with links to the 2019 protest movement, said the issue had "reached a place that cannot be tolerated".

"There are parents who have lost their children and children who have lost their parents. Their rights are being eroded, and no one is moving towards justice," he said.

The legal blockage has meant Mr Bitar is unable to summon suspects or press charges, but also means that some individuals detained over the blast but cleared of suspicion remain in custody.

Lebanese judicial officials, including justice minister Henry Khoury, have explored the possibility of appointing a secondary judge to the investigation while Mr Bitar's investigation is blocked.

But it has been condemned by many as another move by Lebanon's rulers to evade responsibility and further stall the inquiry.

Mr Naggear said it was "a way for this criminal regime to once and for all" end the bid for justice over the blast. "They will shut [the bid for justice] completely. We are totally against it and we will fight it very hard," he said.

The 2020 blast happened less than a year after Lebanon's economic collapse, described as one of the worse in modern history by the World Bank, first became apparent.

There are widespread shortages in basic essentials, much of the population has been pushed into poverty and the local currency has lost more than 95 per cent of its value to the dollar on the parallel market.

Updated: January 10, 2023, 4:35 PM