Beirut blast: minister criticised for letter to investigating judge

Memo signed by Raoul Nehme asked for acts of terrorism and war to be ruled out to expedite insurance payments

A man wearing a protective face mask walks past damaged buildings and vehicles near the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 5, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
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Families of victims of the Beirut explosion have attacked Lebanon’s caretaker economy minister for asking the lead investigator to rule out acts of terrorism and war in a bid to speed up the settlement of insurance claims.

A committee representing the families accused Raoul Nehme of anticipating the investigation’s outcome and acquitting Israel and terrorist organisations in a blatant disregard of their quest for justice.

"What this minister did ... is not only a blatant and unacceptable interference with the outcomes of the investigation, but a treacherous stab at our national and humanitarian cause that will not be tolerated," it said in a statement carried by Lebanon's National News Agency.

The request to the investigating judge was made through a memo from the Insurance Control Commission, Lebanon’s insurance sector regulatory authority, which reports to the economy minister. It was signed by Mr Nehme.

The request represents a clear attempt to interfere in the affairs of judicial authorities, said Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer and founder of The Legal Agenda, a Beirut-based research and advocacy organisation.

The minister could face criminal prosecution leading to up to four and a half years in prison, Mr Saghieh told The National.

Mr Nehme said the memo intended only to highlight the importance of issuing an official report once investigations conclude.

“The memo is not intended as an interference in the work of the judiciary and the [Insurance Control] Commission expresses its willingness to withdraw and rephrase the memo since it was misinterpreted,” a statement released by the minister’s office said.

The memo pointed out that international reinsurers were holding payments pending the official outcome of investigations and that most arrangements between local insurance bodies and international reinsurers excluded acts of war and terrorism.

“The payment of dues by international reinsurers would result in an inflow of over 1.2 billion US dollars from overseas,” it said, noting that the value of compensations exceeded the capital of local insurance entities.

According to the latest ICC report released in February, insurance have received about 16,000 claims for estimated losses close to $1.1bn. Only $60 million has been settled so far.

The investigation into the August 4 blast, which killed more than 200 people and caused billions of dollars worth of damage in the capital, has been marred by controversy.

Officials have bickered over who was responsible for allowing the stockpile of ammonium nitrate that caused the blast to be stored at the port for more than six years.

Eight months later, it remains unclear who owned the chemicals or why they were held at the port for so long. Politicians have yet to agree on a new government to take over from the caretaker government of Hassan Diab, which resigned soon after the expolosion.

In February, a number of Lebanese lawmakers petitioned the United Nations to set up an international fact-finding commission to look into the explosion.

The petition followed the appointment of a new lead investigator case after the supreme court ruled to remove his predecessor Judge Fadi Sawan from the case at the request of two of four officials he had indicted in the case.

Mr Sawan had charged Mr Diab and three former ministers with criminal negligence over the blast. All four argued that the judge had no authority to indict them under the constitution, which grants immunity from prosecution to lawmakers and ministers for decisions related to their work.