A Year After The Beirut Explosion Victims Seek Justice

Published August 3rd, 2021 - 05:42 GMT
Families of Beirut blast victims fight for justice
Families of Beirut blast victims fight for justice (Twitter)
Highlights
The ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut in 2013 onboard the Rhosus, a Moldovan-flagged ship sailing from Georgia to Mozambique. 

The domestic investigation has yet to determine what triggered the blast, where the chemicals originated from or why they were left unattended for six years.

It has been a year since a monster explosion disfigured Beirut but a local probe has yet to yield significant arrests or even identify a culprit, with politicians widely accused of stalling progress.

The explosion on August 4 last year at the Beirut port killed more than 200 people. It destroyed swathes of the capital and devastated the city's dockside harbour, where the initial fire had broken out, which was felt as far as Cyprus island.

One of history’s largest non-nuclear explosions was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser haphazardly stocked in the port warehouse since 2014. 

The tragedy struck as Lebanon was mired in its worst economic crisis in decades, with its currency plummeting, massive layoffs and drastic banking restrictions.

The domestic investigation has yet to determine what triggered the blast, where the chemicals originated from or why they were left unattended for six years.

In a country where even high-profile assassinations and bombings go unpunished, many fear that a domestic blast probe will also fail to hold anyone to account. 

Nearly a year later, no top officials have been questioned over the disaster, angering many Lebanese.

Officials in government, parliament and the country's top security agencies have so far dodged questioning by referencing so-called "immunity" clauses in the constitution. 

A probe into the port blast led by judge Tarek Bitar has been hindered over the past month as requests sent by parliament and the government to lift immunity and enable questioning of several top officials were either declined or stalled.

Recently, Lebanon's influential parliament speaker Nabih Berri said the legislature is ready to lift the immunity of its members in order to allow for questioning over the blast. 

"The priority of parliament was and will continue to be complete cooperation with the judiciary," Berri said in a statement after a meeting with the Future Movement, parliament's main Sunni bloc.

According to lawyer Youssef Lahoud who represents hundreds of blast victims, the officials are “simply trying to evade justice”. 

Despite obstacles, Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation, has completed more than 75 percent of the case. The investigator has so far identified who is responsible for shipping the ammonium nitrate to Beirut and who decided on chemicals to be stored at the port. 

But the key questions remain unanswered as to what sparked the explosion and the huge network that brought the shipment into Lebanon. 

The shipment  

The ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut in 2013 onboard the Rhosus, a Moldovan-flagged ship sailing from Georgia to Mozambique. 

The vessel was seized by authorities after a company filed a lawsuit against its owner over a debt dispute. In 2014, port authorities unloaded the shipment and stored it in a derelict warehouse with cracked walls. 

A Mozambican factory, Fabrica de Explosivos de Mocambique,  confirmed it had ordered and never received the ammonium nitrate.

Judge Bitar has identified key protagonists like the owner of the company that shipped the ammonium nitrate and a bank in Mozambique that funded the shipment. But the investigation has not concluded yet. 

The investigation is also looking into reports alleging that three Syrian businessmen holding Russian citizenship had been involved in purchasing the chemicals. 

 “Ali Baba's cave”

Port authorities, security officials and political leaders, including then-premier Hassan Diab and President Michel Aoun, knew the chemicals were being stored at the port, and that it would cause a huge explosion. 

The first judge tasked with investigating the blast, Fadi Sawan, issued charges of negligence against Diab and three former ministers in December. He was removed for his trouble. 

Bitar picked up where Sawan left off. He summoned Diab and demanded parliament lift the immunity of former finance minister Ali Hasan Khalil, former public works minister Ghazi Zaiter and former interior minister Nohad Machnouk. 

Bitar has also asked for permission to investigate State Security chief Tony Saliba and the head of the General Security agency, Abbas Ibrahim.

Documents and witness testimonies suggest they were "all aware of the ammonium nitrate shipment and its dangers".But the country's reviled political class has closed ranks to stall the investigation.

"Every time the lead investigator tries to summon or investigate one of them, they turn to immunity for cover," Karlen Hitti Karam.

The young woman's husband, brother and cousin were among the firefighters killed in the blast. 

"It's like Lebanon is Ali Baba's cave, and not an actual state," she said.

This article has been adapted from its original source.


Copyright © 2021 TRT World

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