Port officials fear years in detention without trial as Beirut blast investigation flounders

Former ministers attack investigative judge to evade judicial inquiry

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When Col Daoud Fayad, 42, was detained last September on charges related to the August 4 Beirut port blast, his worst fears were confirmed.

"Daoud knew that Lebanon is a corrupt country," his wife Monia told The National.

“The judge cannot go after ministers or prime ministers, so he’s going after the small fish.”

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There should be more people indicted than there currently are. The problem is that the judicial system has been selective

Col Fayad is one of 25 mid to low-ranking port employees who have been imprisoned since the explosion.

They feel unfairly treated while the country’s top decision makers, who were warned many times about combustible material stored at the port, remain free.

All 25 were detained under blanket accusations that range from homicide to compromising state security.

In some cases, the accusations do not make sense. An official who started working at the port in 2018 was charged with introducing thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate in 2013.

The detainees will find out what exact charges they are subject to only once the investigation is over.

On August 4, the chemicals stored at the port exploded, allegedly sparked by welding work that set off fireworks stored in the same warehouse.

The blast was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in recent history. It tore through the capital, killing more than 200 people and destroying thousands of homes.

But six months later, accountability is still out of reach.

Daoud Fayad

"There should be more people indicted than there are," said Omar Nashabe, a security analyst and professor at the Lebanese American University.

"The problem is that the judicial system has been selective."

Legal experts say the Lebanese judiciary is close to the country’s political class and easily caves in to its demands.

This makes the work of investigating judge Fadi Sawan, 60, highly sensitive.

The low-profile judge paused his work in mid-December after two former ministers that he had indicted asked the Court of Cassation to remove him from the case.

The highest court in Lebanon is reviewing their claims that Mr Sawan is not neutral. He indicted four politicians but the charges were not made public.

Chibli Mallat, a lawyer, professor and political activist who previously ran for president, said that although Mr Sawan showed “great courage” by bringing charges against high officials, justice cannot stop there. It must reach those at the very top.

Nayla El Hage

“There is a long list of people who were negligent, but the Lebanese president stands on top of that list,” Mr Mallat said.

“It doesn’t make sense to arrest people down the ladder when the one person who could do something and did nothing remains scot free.”

A source close to President Michel Aoun said the leader had done his part by referring reports on the dangers of the ammonium nitrate stored at the port to the Higher Defence Council.

As politicians retreat from the investigation, the fate of the 25 detainees is unclear.

In theory, they could be held in pre-trial detention for years because they will be tried by an exceptional court called the Judicial Council, which can only be set up by the government, said Akram Maalouf, the lawyer for one of the detainees.

In the past two decades, it was formed only twice: after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and after intense clashes in a Palestinian camp in 2013.

The Judicial Council has exceptional powers. There is no limit to pre-trial detention and it is not possible to appeal against its verdict.

This breaches the defendants' rights of due process, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday. Lebanon has signed up to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights that gives them the right to a timely hearing.

“Denying defendants due process does nothing to achieve justice for the victims of the blast,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“An international, independent investigation as well as urgent reforms to Lebanon’s judicial processes are the best guarantee that the people will get the answers they deserve.”

The risk of indefinite detention is causing anguish among the families of the detainees.

"It's not fair for the relatives of the victims who want the truth, and it's not fair for all the innocent people arrested now," Cynthia Naddaf, 32, told The National.

Her husband Joseph established the first office of State Security at Beirut port in mid-2019.

A former member of the army’s special forces, Capt Naddaf, 34, was set the task of fighting corruption, his wife said.

In a report leaked to the media, he specifically said that a fire at warehouse 12 could detonate the ammonium nitrate.

The detention of Capt Naddaf angered victims of the blast.

"The officer who was blowing the whistle about the imminent danger of this material is now in jail," said Maya Ibrahimchah, founder of Beit El Baraka, an NGO that rebuilds houses destroyed by the explosion.

"What the hell is wrong with them? This is infuriating.

“Trying to accuse a few low-grade officials is not going to convince us. We will keep fighting for justice until justice is done.”

The blast damaged Ms Ibrahimchah's house and killed her sister-in-law.

But there is one detainee for whom she has little sympathy: Badri Daher, the head of Customs.

Lebanese media repeatedly highlighted his allegedly corrupt dealings. Mr Aoun blocked his dismissal twice, months after he was jailed.

Charbel Fawaz

Monia Fawaz, who is married to another detainee, General Security commander Charbel Fawaz, said her life was on hold.

“We have no idea what’s going on. We don’t know when he’ll get out," Ms Fawaz said. "Every request we made for him to be freed has been refused."

She said her husband was deeply depressed.

“We have a one-year-old son who started to walk and calling me 'Mamma', and Charbel is not here to witness it,” Ms Fawaz said.

Life in detention is particularly difficult for Naila El Hage, 40, a French-Lebanese engineer who worked for a company hired by the Beirut port to do technical control.

Because she is the only female detainee, she is kept in isolation.

"This would drive anyone mad,” said her brother, Fouad El Hage.

Mr El Hage said he felt the Lebanese justice system had failed his family.

"They reminded us of the days of Syrian occupation and how the regime treated those who stood in their way," he told The National, referring to the 29 years of Syrian tutelage over Lebanon that ended in 2005.

“It’s a complete disgrace.”

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