London's High Court of Justice has ruled against Savaro Ltd, the company suspected of having bought the ammonium nitrate that caused a devastating explosion at Beirut's port on August 4, 2020, in the first legal ruling favouring the victims of the blast.
The decision issued on February 1 and seen by The National, followed a civil lawsuit against Savaro filed in August 2021 by the Beirut Bar Association's prosecution office and several families of the victims, through the law firm Dechert LLP.
It ordered the "judgment on liability" to be entered "against the Defendant [ Savaro] for an amount of damages to be assessed".
"It is a very good news, it is the first ruling in this case. It is a sign of hope for us and the Lebanese, that justice exists somewhere. It gives courage and strength to continue," said Paul Naggear, one of the plaintiffs, whose three-year-old daughter was among at least 215 people killed in the explosion.
"The UK court ruled that Savaro Ltd was liable for the damages caused to the victims based on Lebanese law and the legal grounds the claimants presented. It is a major step, as it is the first time a court holds an entity responsible for this tragedy," former minister Camille Abousleiman, a senior lawyer at Dechert who is in charge of the case, told The National.
No senior official in Lebanon has been held accountable for the blast during a stalled domestic investigation which, according to Amnesty International and rights groups, is blocked by "flagrant political interference" and "lack of respect for fair trial standards".
Mr Abousleiman said the British court had jurisdiction because Savaro is a UK-registered company, but the ruling applied Lebanese law because the events took place in Lebanon.
"The case has now entered the second stage. There is a hearing scheduled in June to assess the damages and the compensations to be paid for the plaintiffs, under the Lebanese law," he said
Several investigations into the Beirut blast, found that the shipment of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which was impounded in Beirut while en route to Mozambique, was imported by Savaro.
Mr Abousleiman has argued that the owner of the cargo shared responsibility for the deadly explosion because it failed to ensure the cargo was properly stored and did not pose a threat.
Savaro has been trying to obtain its dissolution since 2021 from the UK corporate registry Companies House. Mr Abousleiman said that was a way of evading responsibility for any role in the tragedy.
"But the UK authorities halted the firm's voluntary liquidation thanks to the lawsuit," he said.
Mr Abousleiman hopes the ruling will pave the way for similar decisions. Another international lawsuit was filed in the US last year by the Swiss organisation Accountability Now, seeking $250 million in damages for the victims.
However, the ability of Savaro, which appears to be shell company with few employees and no actual activities, to pay damages is uncertain.
"Savaro might not have enough assets to cover for it, but we need to wait after the assessment hearing to see, if that is the case, which actions to undertake," Mr Abousleiman said.
But it is not all about the financial compensation. For the claimants, the case could also fuel ongoing investigations with new evidence.
"One of the objectives of this action is to uncover Savaro's ultimate owners and break through the corporate layers and chain of responsibility. The UK ruling is also an ultimatum for Savaro after it failed to reveal its ultimate beneficial owner despite having been compelled by the court," Mr Naggear said.
The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a network of investigative journalists, has reported that Savaro's “true shareholders are hidden behind offshore nominee directors and shareholders”.
It said Savaro was part of a bigger network of companies operated by Ukrainian businesspeople whose operations were obscured "behind at least half a dozen trade names and various strawmen and shell companies".
"The case has uncovered evidence that will hopefully prove helpful to the ongoing investigation, and open the doors to other cases in Lebanon and abroad, as no individual or company with any direct or indirect responsibility for this tragedy should escape justice," Mr Abousleiman said.