'Who killed my father?': families of Beirut blast victims desperate for answers

Judge investigating blast is failing to hold influential politicians to account, says local watchdog

Shushan Bezdjian (centre) 53. Her daughter Jessica, 22, in the picture she is holding was a nurse at the Greek Orthodox Hospital and died in the blast. Sunniva Rose / The National
Powered by automated translation

Families of victims of the Beirut port explosion say they are desperate for answers and financial help, but the judge in charge of the investigation refuses to hold influential politicians accountable, a local watchdog told The National on Wednesday.

“I came here to know who killed my father,” said Ahmad Lazekani, 23.

The third-year data science student on Wednesday took part in a small protest near the Lebanese Parliament with two dozen other friends and relatives of people who died in the blast on August 4.

Local officials have blamed poor security measures for the ignition of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the port, in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in recent history.

About 205 people died and thousands were injured in the blast, which devastated large parts of Beirut, destroying tens of thousands of homes.

“We were at home and the door fell and broke in front of him," Mr Lazekani said of his father Mohammad, 55.

"He had bleeding in his head and all his bones broke. They cut his fingers."


A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 4, 2020.  - 
 / AFP / STR
A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. AFP

He said he did not trust the Lebanese judiciary to hold those responsible accountable for his father’s death.

“For 30 years they have been in power and they are all thieves,” Mr Lazekani said.

He was referring to the country’s political class, which has ruled since the end of the civil war in 1990.

“My biggest hope is to leave Lebanon when I finish my studies. I’ll throw my ID away in the garbage.”

Several politicians, including President Michel Aoun and caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, said they had been made aware of the dangerous chemicals stored at the port but had been unable to do anything about it.

The judge responsible for the probe into the blast, Fadi Sawan, asked Parliament in a letter to investigate caretaker Public Works and Transport Minister Michel Najjar, Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni and Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm, AFP reported on Wednesday morning.

“Honestly, I couldn’t care less," Mr Lazekani said. "Even if he asked [parliamentary Speaker] Nabih Berri to come, he would go and come back without a problem.

"It’s been three months, and no-one has been held accountable."

Ali Sawan's son Hussein, holding a picture of his father who was killed in the Beirut port blast on August 4. Sunniva Rose / The National
Ali Sawan's son Hussein, holding a picture of his father who was killed in the Beirut port blast on August 4. Sunniva Rose / The National

Shushan Bezdjian, 53, echoed Mr Lazekani’s anger.

"Is it possible that no one asks about us? What are we, dogs? Not a single politician offered his condolences for my daughter," Ms Bezdjian told The National.

“Shame on them. They knew."

Her daughter Jessica, 22, was a nurse at the Greek-Orthodox hospital in Beirut.

On August 4, she went to work early for a shift that started at 7pm. When the explosion happened at 6.08pm, the hospital entrance door flew across the room, killing her on the spot.

Mr Sawan has so far arrested 25 people as part of the continuing investigation, including top port and Customs officials.

He has heard several political figures as witnesses but not opened investigations against them.

Lebanon’s judiciary is notoriously sensitive to political pressure.

Nizar Saghieh, the founder of local watchdog Legal Agenda, previously said Mr Sawan caved in to political pressure at least twice in his previous career at Beirut's Military Court.

Mr Saghieh raised doubts about his ability to conduct an independent investigation into the port explosion.

Mr Sawan’s attempt on Friday to involve Parliament in the investigation into the Beirut port blast was “unacceptable”, Mr Saghieh said.

“I’m afraid to say that we were right about everything we said,” he said.

Asking for Parliament’s intervention is like declaring himself incompetent to investigate politicians, Mr Saghieh said.

“He’s trying to transfer responsibility to Parliament and tell Parliament, 'Go ahead, you are responsible for investigating ministers, not us'.”.

Ministers in Lebanon can only be tried by a special court that requires the approval of two thirds of Parliament. This has never happened before.

Mr Sawan does not speak to the media and The National's previous attempts to contact him yielded no results.

Ms Najm and Mr Najjar declined to comment.

Victims’ families hope to obtain compensation from the government on similar terms to the allowances given to soldiers’ families if they die on duty.

“They receive a monthly allowance, [free] medicine and schools,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, a spokesman for the victims’ families, who lost his brother in the explosion.

The government gave the families of those killed in the blast a one-off sum of 30 million Lebanese pounds each, or $3,750 at the black market rate and $20,000 at the defunct official rate.

But there were significant delays and it took two months to reach many of them, Mr Hoteit said.

He said he believed the monthly allowance was a little more than one million Lebanese pounds.

That is $133 at the black-market rate, which has been in use since the local currency lost about 80 per cent of its value.

Lebanon’s economy has collapsed in the past year and the IMF expects it to contract by a further 25 per cent in 2020.

Mr Hoteit told The National  that MP Ali Hassan Khalil received a delegation of victims' families on Friday afternoon and promised that this week or next, Parliament would sign the law allowing them to receive an allowance.

Mr Hoteit said the law had already been signed by Mr Aoun, Mr Diab, who resigned on August 11 after the blast, and Mr Berri, and that it only needed to be ratified by Parliament.

But Mr Saghieh warned that a caretaker government could not sign off draft laws.

“I think they are playing a very nasty games with the victims, by promising some things that are not valid,” he said.

Mr Khalil did not respond to phone calls on Wednesday.