One cannot miss the irony of the Lebanese officials allegedly responsible for what is possibly the third or fourth largest non-nuclear explosion in the world hiding behind “immunity” from a crime that claimed over 207 people and injured 6,000, while devastating large parts of the Lebanese capital. The Beirut Port explosion in August 2020 measured about one-twentieth the size of Hiroshima’s atomic bomb, according to the BBC. As its one-year anniversary approaches, many Lebanese are still struggling to hold accountable those responsible for the blast.
After unsuccessful efforts to investigate the blast, Judge Tarek Bitar succeeds his predecessor Judge Fadi Sawan as head of the investigation. This follows Sawan’s short-lived appointment, who was removed after 48 hours on February 18, 2021 amidst political pressure and claims that he lacked impartiality because the government compensated him for the blast damage of his home. Political culture — including legal and public relations maneuvers — has long impeded any progress on the investigation, protecting powerful officials from prosecution. On July 2, Judge Bitar motioned to remove these immunities to proceed with the investigation. He is focusing on several top security and political officials including the caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab, as well as three former government ministers, former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, former transportation minister Ghazi Zaiter, and former interior minister Nohad Machnouk, on suspicion of homicide with probable intent and criminal negligence. Judge Bitar has also requested permission to question General Abbas Ibrahim — as of this writing, Ibrahim has announced his reluctance to appear. The suspects span the political spectrum, a move Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer and rights watchdog, commended in the New York Times as “going in the right direction.” This would make it “harder for individual political parties to claim that they were being unfairly targeted to undermine the investigation.”
“There is no shortage of allegations of corruption and human rights violations against high-level officials in Lebanon, but there has been a culture of impunity that has allowed them to escape accountability for their actions, and this is manifest in what Lebanon has become today,” in the words of Aya Majzoub, a Lebanon researcher with Human Rights Watch, as cited in the New York Times. Judge Bitar’s efforts will “test the limits of this unaccountable system.”
Expectedly, Bitar is facing political pressure after these initiatives. Secretary-General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah opened an attack against the judge in a televised appearance on July 5, claiming the investigation is a “form of political exploitation of the issue. Previously we rejected this issue and we return to confirm our rejection of it,” as cited by Nader Fawz in Al Modon. Formerly, Nasrallah had accused Judge Fadi Sawan’s investigation of being “suspicious,” a characterization that was enough to push the judge to step down from the case. Intimidation may also be a factor; according to recent reports, Sawan had found a slain cat at the entrance to his house. He understood the message, and when Al Modon contacted him, he refused to comment.
But Nasrallah and others’ efforts to deter Judge Bitar and any progress on the investigation will not alter the plight of the victims’ families, who continue to call for accountability, fearful that the powerful will once again escape responsibility, wrote Nader Fawz. And few would wonder that lack of accountability is not far-fetched, particularly when Wael Taleb in L’Orient Lejour writes that 11 months after the explosion, Lebanon’s president has not yet officially met with any of the victims’ families. These families remain unsatisfied with the government effort, and as recently as a few days ago, they gathered in solidarity, adorned in black in front of the Palace of Justice in Beirut, to support Bitar and his decision to lift the immunities of Lebanese officials.
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