Why Lebanese politicians turned on Beirut blast judge Fadi Sawan

Sawan's removal a blow for victims’ families demanding accountability

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Former military court judge Fadi Sawan's appointment to investigate last August's Beirut port blast was coolly received by legal experts, who described him as a low-profile judge who had previously caved in to political pressure.

At the time, they told The National that they doubted Mr Sawan, 60, had the backbone to confront Lebanon's corrupt political establishment and find responsibility for the explosion that destroyed much of Beirut on August 4.

More than 200 people died, tens of thousands of homes were destroyed and 300,000 people were displaced. The World Bank estimated damages at $350 million.

Last December, Mr Sawan took legal experts and the country’s rulers by surprise when he pressed charges against four of the country’s top politicians.

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But this step was also the start of the end of his investigation.

Two of the politicians he indicted on Thursday succeeded in having him removed, after claiming that he was not neutral.

"It's an extraordinary message to all judges: you cannot go beyond red lines," Nizar Saghieh, head of the non-government organisation Legal Agenda, told The National.

“This is a judge who was not known for being brave, who is 60 years old, is at the end of his career and took very courageous decisions that he did not want to take at first. It’s a very important moment.

“It was like social pressure pushed him to make the final leap and press charges against politicians."

The port blast caused outrage among the Lebanese.

They were already reeling from the country’s worst economic crisis, which has pushed more than half of them into poverty, and widely blame Lebanon’s political class for the disaster.

Several politicians, including President Michel Aoun, publicly admitted they were aware that the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion was unsafely stored for the past seven years.

None have taken responsibility for the explosion, instead trading blame.

But they were united in their condemnation of Mr Sawan when, on December 10, he charged caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab, former finance minister Ali Khalil and former ministers of public works Youssef Fenianos and Ghazi Zaiter with negligence.

Politicians impugned Sawan's integrity

A few days later, MPs Mr Zaiter and Mr Khalil, who belong to Amal, a political party allied with Hezbollah, wrote to the Court of Cassation.

They asked it to investigate Mr Sawan, claiming that he was not neutral or objective.

Mr Saghieh, who read the court’s report, said they based their claim on two arguments.

First, Mr Sawan allegedly said he would not be stopped by parliamentary or ministerial immunity, which was akin to him saying that he would not respect the law, the politicians said.

It was a real battle to broaden the duties of a judge so that he can go after politicians. And I'm afraid we lost the fight

“This is really far-fetched,” Mr Saghieh said. “This is not a reason to remove a judge.”

In Lebanese law, a legislator is immune to criminal prosecution but only for the duration of parliamentary sessions.

“It was a real battle to broaden the duties of a judge so that he could go after politicians," Mr Saghieh said. "And I’m afraid we lost the fight.".

The second argument put forward by Mr Zaiter and Mr Khalil was that Mr Sawan's house had been damaged in the explosion.

They claimed this meant he was not impartial.

But the scale of the disaster in a small country of about five million people should also have been taken into consideration, Mr Saghieh said.

“All the Lebanese were affected in one way or another. We’re talking about 300,000 displaced,” he said.

Mr Sawan’s successor will be appointed by caretaker justice minister Marie-Claude Najm and approved by the Higher Judiciary Council.

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When Mr Sawan was appointed, he was the council’s third choice after judges Samer Younes and Tarek Bitar.

Finding a replacement will be difficult, Mr Saghieh said.

“The investigation is becoming highly politicised. I don’t know who will want the job,” he said.

Media reports uncovered the role of Syrian businessmen in buying the chemical that was taken to Beirut's port in 2013.

Lebanese politics are highly divided among pro-Syrian parties, including Hezbollah, and those who oppose them.

The news of Mr Sawan’s removal from the investigation caused anguish among the relatives of those killed in the blast.

“We want to tell Fadi Sawan: we implore you not to leave the case,” said Yesra Abu Saleh, 60, who took part in a sit-in with a handful of other victims’ relatives on Thursday afternoon in front of the Justice Ministry in Beirut.

Ms Abu Saleh briefly sat in the middle of the road to stop traffic.

“Take our rights from them and don’t be afraid,” she said, referring to Lebanese politicians. “We want to know who killed our children.

"Shame on them. They’re laughing at us."

Ms Abu Saleh’s son Ibrahim Amin, 20, worked at the port’s giant silos and died crushed by thousands of tonnes of grains on August 4.

Standing near by, Ahmad Lazakani, 23, said he had lost hope.

“I’m not angry. It’s a game," Mr Lazakani said. "The government does whatever it wants with Sawan or others.”

His father Mohammad, 55, died from injuries caused by a door in his home that was unhinged by the blast.

Mona Jawish, who lost her daughter Rawan Misto, 20, said Lebanese politicians wanted to cover up the truth and their possible responsibility.

“They don’t want us to know who killed our children," Ms Jawish said. "That’s why they got rid of Judge Sawan.”