Investigation of Beirut Blast Suspended Once Again
The investigation into last year’s deadly Beirut port explosion has been suspended on Monday after an ex-minister wanted for questioning complained about the judge’s impartiality. This has been condemned by rights groups and victims’ families as political obstruction.
Judicial sources said the judge Tarek Bitar will stop the probe until a court rules on Nohad Machnouk’s case. Machnouk is one of a raft of top officials suspected of negligence ahead of the port detonation.
Bitar has been struggling to get high-profile witnesses to testify. As a matter of fact, his predecessor, Fadi Sawan was removed on similar grounds in February after accusing former ministers of negligence.
Sawan decided last December to charge the prime minister at the time of the incident, Hassan Diab, and three other former senior officials: Ex-Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and ex-public works ministers Youssef Finyanus and Ghazi Zaiter with negligence. They refused to be questioned as suspects. Sawan’s impartiality was then questioned by the Court of Cassation because his home was damaged by the port blast.
His replacement, Judge Bitar, has also sought to question these four men, as well as Machnouk, a former Interior Minister, and several former army and security chiefs.
Additionally, he has issued an arrest warrant for Finyanus after he failed to appear before him. That prompted the former minister to request the judge’s removal, alleging “legitimate suspicion” of bias. After Machnouk made a similar complaint last week, the judge’s investigation has been effectively paused.
On Monday 27, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati has announced that the suspension of the probe was a “judicial matter”, telling local broadcaster LBCI he did not think Lebanon “could withstand the second judge being removed”, Kareem Chehayeb reports.
Lebanese legal expert and founder of watchdog group Legal Agenda Nizar Saghieh anticipate that the suspension could last for 10 days.
On August 4, 2020, Beirut’s port exploded and killed more than 200 people, injured around 6,500, and destroyed parts of the city. A fire triggered the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a combustible chemical, that had been stored unsafely in a warehouse for almost six years.
The ammonium nitrate arrived in 2013 when a Moldovan-flagged cargo vessel made an unscheduled stop there and was then banned from leaving because of a legal dispute over unpaid fees and ship defects, the BBC explains. In 2014, the ship was deemed unseaworthy, and the cargo was unloaded to a warehouse.
The heads of the port and customs authorities warned about the danger of the ammonium nitrate and called for officials to remove it. This was repeatedly ignored.
As of now, more than 20 people, most of them port and customs officials, have been arrested, but the probe has yet to identify a single culprit.
Amongst the Lebanese and the families of those affected by the explosion, there is great anger and a growing disgust towards the political class. They are seen as the ones obstructing the investigation and the ones negligent enough to allow this disaster. Let’s not forget that the disaster has happened amid a deep economic crisis in Lebanon that has pushed three quarters of the population into poverty.
The relatives of the victims have been pressing for accountability for months, organizing rallies and even storming the houses of ex-ministers to denounce political interference. They have called for an independent international investigation, which has been rejected by the countries’ political leaders.
Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), Aya Majzoub told the AFP that the case “should make it patently clear that the Lebanese political class will do everything in their power to derail, obstruct and undermine the investigation and escape justice.” These obstructions of justice should wake up the international community and “authorize an international fact-finding mission”, she added.
Last month HRW directly accused Lebanese authorities of criminal negligence in their handling of the ammonium nitrate shipment and called for broad international sanctions against them.
A protest has been scheduled for Wednesday 29 at the Justice Palace against the inactivity of judicial forces and the probe’s suspension.