Lebanese parliament hands army emergency powers after Beirut blast

The hour-long session also saw MPs approve the resignation of several members in the wake of the blast

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri heads a parliamentary session at UNESCO Palace, after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 13, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

Lebanon’s parliament on Thursday passed a state of emergency giving the military sweeping powers to stop any action deemed a threat to national security in the wake of last week's blast in Beirut.

Civilians strongly criticised the order as trying to legitimise a crackdown on the protest movement demanding the removal of the political class. Anti-government demonstrators who have taken to the streets to demand change since the explosion that killed 171 and wounded more than 6,000.

The disaster struck after the state defaulted on its foreign debt in March and the currency lost enormous value over the last year.

The state of emergency allows the army to close down assembly points and prohibit gatherings deemed threats to national security, and expands the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians.

The army can also raid homes at any time and impose house arrest on anyone engaged in activities considered to threaten security, the watchdog said.

“Parliament is convening to decide on a state of emergency, meaning arbitrary arrests and the smothering of liberties,” shouted a protester with a megaphone outside the session held in Unesco palace in west Beirut.

“The excuse is national security, but the purpose is to cover up for the Beirut massacre," she shouted. “Retribution is for the regime. Justice is for the victims."

The government declared a two-week state of emergency on August 5 but as the measure lasts more than eight days, Lebanese law requires that it be approved by parliament, according to human rights watchdog The Legal Agenda.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly arrived in Beirut on Thursday, a week after President Emmanuel Macron met senior Lebanese politicians and residents of Beirut on a brief visit to the capital.

She will meet the crew of a French military vessel due to arrive in Beirut to help in the international aid effort.

Ineptitude exposed by the explosion has revived the protest movement after the government crushed it in January.

A senior US state department official also arrived in Lebanon for a two-day trip on Thursday, promising the FBI would join Lebanese and international investigators in the probe into the blast.

US Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale said the participation in the probe is one of the ways the US is helping Lebanon in dealing with the aftermath of the drastic explosion.

The authorities allowed a large shipment of ammonium nitrate fertiliser to lie for years in a warehouse at the port, despite repeated warnings.

Protests have taken to the streets of central Beirut on successive nights leading to scuffles with security forces who have used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab's government stepped down on Monday after several ministers said they would quit over the explosion.

Speaker Nabih Berri had said Thursday’s session would be to question ministers on the explosion but with Cabinet's resignation it was no longer possible.

MPs met as politicians jockey over the next government and blame for the disaster.

Mr Berri claimed there was a plot against parliament but did not provide specifics.

"Over the past two weeks, a plot has been hatched involving the resignation of MPs and over the government's willingness to question parliament,” he said.

Parliament accepted the resignation of seven MPs and began discussions on passing a state of emergency in the wake of the explosion.

MP Simon Abi Ramia told reporters on his way in that he was hesitant to attend. “We are living in institutional chaos,” he said.

– additional reporting by agencies