Lebanese Government Brought to Reckoning on the Anniversary of Beirut Port Explosion

Elie Chalala
On the left, one of the victims of the explosion, photographed by Mohamad Kleit. On the right, words written by Lebanese citizens in front of the explosion site, photograph by AP Photo/Hussein Malla.

Victims of the devastating Beirut port explosion have no answers or justice, even a full year after the disaster. According to Human Rights Watch, the August 2020 explosion at Beirut port’s hangar 12 decimated the significant sectors of the city, killing 218 people, injuring 7,000, and displacing 300,000. Despite protests from victims to find those responsible for the explosion, efforts to investigate have been thwarted repeatedly. Lebanon’s legal and political systems have allowed the officials responsible to avoid accountability, benefiting from a lack of judicial independence, immunity provided by existing laws, lack of respect for fair trial standards, and due process violations. As the Lebanese government continues to prove itself incapable of delivering justice, Human Rights Watch recently published a report covering evidence revealed in the 127-page report, “‘They Killed Us from the Inside’: An Investigation into the August 4 Beirut Blast” and calls for an international investigation.
The report details several counts of negligence and implicates senior Lebanese officials involved in transporting and the improper storage of the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate since 2014. According to Lama Fakih, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch, senior Lebanese officials “failed to accurately communicate the dangers posed by the ammonium nitrate, knowingly stored the material in unsafe conditions, and failed to protect the public.” The report reveals that customs officials sent at least six letters to the judiciary requesting the sale or export of the material but were denied each time because their “requests were procedurally incorrect.” However, “Judicial officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that customs did not need judicial authorization to sell, re-export, or destroy the material.” According to the report, military Intelligence, who handle security issues related to munitions, drugs, and violence at the port, failed to secure the material despite knowing its explosive risks. Documents also indicate government officials “foresaw and tacitly accepted the risks of death posed by the ammonium nitrate’s presence in the port. Under domestic law, this could amount to the crime of homicide with probable intent, and/or unintentional homicide. Under international human rights law, a state’s failure to act to prevent foreseeable risks to life violates the right to life,” in the words of Human Rights Watch.
Efforts to investigate the officials and hold them accountable have been an on-and-off process the entire year. In December 2020, Judge Fadi Sawan, appointed to investigate the explosion, charged former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, former Public Works ministers Youssef Fenianos and Ghazi Zeaiter, and caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, with “criminal negligence.” However, many avoided their summons through immunities and other means. “26 MPs from the blocs of Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, Amal Movement, Hezbollah, and Future Movement, signed a petition requesting the launch of parallel proceedings in an attempt to avoid questioning by Bitar,” according to Amnesty International. The Minister of Interior also rejected Judge Sawan’s request to question the head of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim. Sawan was removed from the investigation in February and replaced with Judge Tarek Bitar, who in July renewed efforts to remove immunities and question the officials. With the continued state of obstruction and refusal to face scrutiny, however, calls for an investigation by the UN Human Rights Council may finally give justice and answers the victims have been demanding for a year.
To read the two reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, click on the links below:
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