The Cypriot entrepreneur accused of being the owner of a ship at the heart of last month’s devastating explosion in Beirut, which killed at least 190 people and wreaked havoc across the Lebanese capital, has spoken out publicly for the first time to deny his involvement.
Speaking exclusively to The National, Charalambos Manoli expressed sorrow for the losses caused by the explosion, but said that claims he was the owner of the MV Rhosus were inaccurate.
An investigation last month by several media outlets – including the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and German newspaper Der Spiegel – claimed Mr Manoli was the true owner of the ship, not Russian Igor Grechushkin, as was previously reported.
However, according to what appears to be a ship continuous synopsis record, or CSR, provided by Mr Manoli, the MV Rhosus was chartered to Mr Grechushkin's Teto Shipping in 2012, a year before the boat made an unscheduled stop at Beirut, where it and its cargo of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were impounded.
Dr Victoria Mitchell, an associate maritime analyst at risk consultancy Control Risks, said a CSR is a log book required for specific vessel types that remained with the vessel throughout its lifespan and lists changes of ownership, flag, name, class and other details.
The document appears to show a bareboat lease agreement, whereby the charterer obtains possession and full control of a ship along with the legal and financial responsibility for it. The charterer generally pays for all operating expenses, including fuel, crew, maintenance and repairs.
Mr Manoli said the accusations have caused him stress and a lot of unwanted attention.
“It’s very frustrating for me and my family. Eight years after I sold the vessel someone is accusing me of bringing the cargo to Beirut and other things. People died and were injured – it’s not very good for me, my family or my business,” he said by phone from the Cypriot city of Limassol.
“I know how people feel because in 2011 there was a big explosion here in Cyprus. Fortunately not as many died, but we have the same feeling.”
Twelve people were killed that year in a blast at a naval base in southern Cyprus.
“I hope that they are going to find the people who actually left this cargo [at Beirut port] for such a long time without any care, bringing us to this horrible result,” said Mr Manoli.
In late 2013, the Rhosus made an unscheduled stop at Beirut port while carrying the ammonium nitrate to a chemical explosives factory in Mozambique.
The ship’s captain has since told the media he was told to stop to pick up additional cargo. Two Lebanese companies claimed they had not been paid for services to the vessel while there, prompting local courts to bar it from leaving.
The boat and the ammonium nitrate it had been carrying remained there until, on August 4 this year, the hanger the cargo was stored ignited, causing one of the biggest non-atomic blasts on record.
Mystery has since surrounded the ship and its cargo. Speculation that the boat had always been bound for Beirut and that the Shiite militant group Hezbollah was the true owner of the shipment of a substance that is used as fertiliser and in explosives remains unfounded.
Mr Grechushkin is said to have abandoned the vessel in Lebanon after declaring bankruptcy.
Although Mr Grechushkin was questioned by the Cypriot police on behalf of the Lebanese authorities following the blast, Mr Manoli said he had not been approached for questioning.
“The Lebanese authorities know who the owner [of the boat] is, who fixed the cargo, who was responsible for the crew, who picked the captain because of the documents within the local court. Why would they come to me?” he asked.
Although they know one another, the two men have spoken only twice in the past two and a half years, Mr Manoli claimed.
"I recently spoke to him one time on the mobile phone and he said he was going to give the police a statement. I have no special relationship with the guy," he said.
Mr Grechushkin has not responded to attempts to contact him.
The OCCRP reported that as well as being the true owner of the boat, Mr Manoli had been in debt to Lebanese-owned Federal Bank of the Middle East at the time of the boat’s last voyage.
It said that the bank has lost multiple licenses for alleged money-laundering offences, including helping Hezbollah, and a company linked to Syria’s weapons of mass destruction programme.
It also claimed that the factory in Mozambique the cargo was destined for “is part of a network of companies previously investigated for weapons trafficking and allegedly supplying explosives used by terrorists”.
Mr Manoli said he had nothing to do with the journey the boat was taking when it was seized in Beirut, nor the cargo, although he knew the boat was stuck at the port as Cyprus’ shipping community is small, “so we know what is happening”.
The shipping magnate said that any implication that he was in some way pressured by the bank to do favours for anyone were unfounded.
“They didn’t make me do any favours. They took the vessel for three months and after that we signed an agreement, and they released the vessel,” he said.
“What would they ask me to do? We had been fighting each other.”
Cypriot court documents in Greek provided by Mr Manoli show that in a case brought against him by FBME in 2013, it was deemed that the full amount had been paid to the plaintiff, although there were still some expenses to settle.
“At this time it was declared by the judge that ‘by mathematical calculation we can verify that the vessel is already overpaid’. However, they said, because you have declared that you have extra items etc, I will minimise this demand and then we see during the trial,” he said.
“During the trial, the FBME demands were rejected.”
On claims that the vessel had not been seaworthy and had been certified as able to sail by another company owned by Mr Manoli, he said that these were also unfair.
“After the completion of repairs in Seville, the Spanish authorities gave permission for the vessel to go to sea,” he said.
"If it was not seaworthy, they would never allow this."