Lebanese judge Fadi Sawan has been tasked with the daunting mission of determining responsibility for the explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port that killed at least 171 and injured more than 6,500 on August 4.
But in a country where the issue of political influence over the judiciary has been a major issue in recent years, many are asking how far Mr Sawan will be allowed to go given that senior politicians were potentially aware of the ammonium nitrate long before the blast.
The previously little-known figure, Mr Sawan, 60, has been a Military Court judge since 2009 and was previously an investigative judge in the Beirut suburb of Baabda.
At least one now-resigned minister has said he was made aware of the ammonium nitrate at Beirut port and reports indicate that successive governments, as well as President Michel Aoun, knew about the chemicals stored at the port since 2013. On Sunday, Lebanon’s New TV news reported that caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab cancelled a visit to inspect the site in June after being told it was just fertiliser.
But no politician has yet taken responsibility for the tragedy. While the Lebanese blame the entire political class for negligence – they showed their anger in mass protests in which some hanged life-size effigies of several senior politicians from scaffolds – Mr Sawan must now build a legal case against anyone found to be involved.
The judge started his investigation last Monday, interrogating one by one the 25 officials so far charged in relation to the blast. Up to now, he has ordered the arrest of Customs chief Badri Daher, port director Hassan Koraytem, Director of the Beirut Port Authority Hanna Fares, Director of the port’s Manifest Department Neameh Al-Brax, and engineer Nayla Hajj.
While he will speak to a roster of ministers, none have so far been charged.
Bloomberg reported that Mr Sawan is set to question finance and public works ministers who have held office since late 2013.
If he finds enough evidence of negligence or wrongdoing related to their duties in office, Mr Sawan can refer them to the high council for presidents and ministers. But to do so, two-thirds of Parliament members would need to agree before a case can go forward. MP’s OK would not be needed if the official is prosecuted for a crime outside the remit of their job.
Despite politicians admitting there is widespread corruption in the system, very few have ever been tried for graft in Lebanon. Lebanon ranks 137 out of 180 in Transparency International’s latest corruption perception index.
Riad Kobeissi, an investigative journalist at Lebanese television station Al Jadeed who has extensively worked on corruption at the Beirut port, told The National that "political factions are fully responsible" for the Beirut disaster because they appoint top officials such as Mr Daher and Mr Koraytem.
“There are questions whether he [Mr Sawan] can hold the pressure from political parties but until now he is performing well,” he said.
State prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, who handed the lawsuit over to Mr Sawan after his appointment, is already under fire from Gebran Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement political party, for arresting Mr Daher.
“Gebran Bassil is treating Daher’s arrest like it’s an attack on him,” said Mr Kobeissi.
But Mr Oueidat also has strong ties to Lebanon’s ruling class. His sister is married to former public works minister Ghazi Zaiter, a member of the Amal Movement led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and is allied with Iran-backed Hezbollah.
“Ghassan Oueidat is known for his political connections,” said Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer and founder of the NGO Legal Agenda, which lobbies for more transparency in the Lebanese judicial system.
Despite the Taif Accord that ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war formally abolishing the sectarian quota system for all but the top government positions, the tradition has persisted.
Parties hang on to posts traditionally reserved for their sect while trying to bring other postings into their orbit as a means of exerting power and influence across the country’s bloated bureaucracy. Therefore, the arrest of a top official reflects badly on their political backers.
“The head of the Beirut district for Customs administration is usually a Sunni Muslim, and the head of the Customs’ airport department is supposed to be Shiite. This is not according to the constitution, it’s just the norm,” said Mr Kobeissi.
Despite the many challenges he faces, politicians and colleagues said that Mr Sawan was the right man for the job. Several praised his independence from political parties – a rare feat in Lebanon where judicial independence has been a central issue in recent years.
A top Lebanese judge, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic, described Mr Sawan as “relatively independent”, “very serious,” and “very intelligent.”
But, he added, “no judge is immune to politics.”
A source at the Military Court who worked alongside Mr Sawan for several years, said that he cultivated a reputation as a solitary and hard-working man.
“He is not on social media. He does not have WhatsApp. He does not like to be invited to dinners. He likes to stay at home,” said the source. “He’s tough. He does not listen to anybody. He’s a great judge.”
An attempt by The National to deliver a letter of questions about the probe to Mr Sawan's office was rebuffed and the letter returned.
But Mr Saghieh, from local watchdog Legal Agenda, told The National that two cases in Mr Sawan's professional record at the Military Court raise questions and indicate that he may have caved in to political pressure.
He said that Mr Sawan appears to have agreed to a request from former justice minister and now senior presidential adviser Salim Jreissati to assign his pick of judge in an investigation into a deadly shooting involving a politician’s motorcade in late June 2019.
“This was the moment to assert his independence, to say 'no, I do not follow orders', and instead [he] handed over the file to the judge,” said Mr Saghieh.
Two men died in the shoot-out in the town of Qabr Chmoun and the incident paralysed the government for 40 days.
Mr Jreissati denies Mr Saghieh’s accusation of interference in the high-profile case and defended Mr Sawan.
"Absolutely untrue," he told The National. "He's a very, very good judge, and [was] the first [lead] investigative judge in the military tribunal, so why would he have to obey me? I have been justice minister, I appointed the guy. He's brilliant, he's excellent, but he's not the type of guy who would obey political instructions. Forget it. Fake news."
Mr Jreissati has served as labour minister, justice minister and most recently as minister of state for presidential affairs until October 2019 when then prime minister Saad Hariri resigned. He is now a close adviser to President Michel Aoun.
Mr Saghieh said the second questionable case led by Mr Sawan was over the shooting of a protester by a member of the military last November.
Mr Sawan released the officer accused of ordering a soldier sitting beside him in a car to shoot at protester Alaa Abou Fakher. The killing of the 38-year-old father of three came several weeks into nationwide anti-government protests triggered by the country’s worst-ever economic crisis.
“This was interpreted as a sign that he served security forces’ interests,” said Mr Saghieh.
Mr Sawan was appointed to investigate the blast by the High Judicial Council, the country’s top court of 10 judges. A 2017 report by Swiss-based human rights NGO International Commission of Jurists said it falls short of international standards of independence from political interference.
Once Mr Sawan completes his investigation, he will transfer his findings to the Judicial Council – an exceptional court that consists of four judges – who can then try the suspects for whom there is a case.
Mr Saghieh worries about the fact that there can be no appeals of the Judicial Council's rulings, and by extension Mr Sawan's findings. “This means that the victims and the accused will not benefit from a fair trial,” he said.
In a statement on Wednesday, the court rejected media “speculation” regarding its appointment of Mr Sawan, but refused to make its deliberation process public citing “secrecy”.
Mr Saghieh said it was unclear what guidelines the council used to select Mr Sawan over two other judges who were ruled out.
One of the two judges, Samer Younes, is well known for having attempted – but ultimately failed – to prosecute top banker Antoun Sehnaoui after one of his bodyguards shot at a crowd in a nightclub in 2010.
Although there is no way to know, Mr Saghieh says this case indicates why Mr Younes was not chosen.
“This gives you an idea of why Samer Younes was rejected. Because he is independent and ready to confront influential people,” said Mr Saghieh.
Distrust of Lebanon’s judicial system has prompted many Lebanese, including victims of the August 4 blast, to call for an international investigation.
Mr Saghieh did not agree, citing the “failure” of the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was set up following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, to prosecute suspects and to reform the Lebanese judicial system.
Fifteen years after the assassination, the STL announced its verdict last week convicting just one of the accused. With the man being tried in absentia, it was interpreted by its supporters and critics as a toothless verdict.
“This tribunal was supposed to enhance the improvement of the Lebanese legal system. Nothing happened,” Mr Saghieh said. “Our preference goes for national justice but in different conditions than the current ones.
“We cannot just say that the Lebanese judicial system is not independent each time there is a terrible crime. This is an opportunity to set up a judicial system that meets the expectations of the Lebanese people.”