Damascus: A year ago, a massive explosion ripped through the skies of Beirut, producing a giant pink mushroom cloud that killed more than 220 people, wounded 6,000 and displaced another 300,000, while tearing down half of the city.
But, not a single Lebanese official has been tried or held accountable for the worst man-made disaster in the country’s history. And due to corruption of Lebanon’s political class, no one is likely to stand in court or be sent to the gallows.
The explosion was caused by 2,754 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate stocked at the port of Beirut, Warehouse 12, since 2013. The exact cause of the detonation remains unclear, with initial reports hinting first hinting at a rocket attack, then at reckless construction work at Warehouse 12. Both theories have since been ruled out by Lebanese and international investigators.
But, nobody has been arrested or tried for the disaster or held accountable. The families of the victims, as well as entirety of the Lebanese population, are furious, with due right, demanding answers and long denied justice.
Days before the first anniversary, they staged a demonstration at the doorstep of Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi’s residence in Beirut, only to be beaten up with clubs by members of the security services. The angry demonstrations were in response to Interior Fahmi’s refusal to summon the powerful head of general security, General Abbas Ibrahim, to court on accusations that he knew of the ammonium nitrate since mid-2020, but did nothing about it.
The ammonium nitrate was carried onboard the MV Rhosus, a Russian-leased ship headed to Mozambique, where it had been officially bought for mining purposes. It docked at the port of Beirut in November 2013 but got tangled in a legal dispute over unpaid port fees. No one claimed the shipment until it exploded on 4 August 2020. According to an FBI report in October 2020, penned at the request of Lebanese officialdom, only 552 tonnes of the ammonium nitrate exploded on that tragic day, not 2,754 tonnes, as earlier claimed.
Suspected homicide and criminal negligence
A special court was convened to investigate the explosion, headed by Judge Fadi Sawwan. In December 2020, he summoned three former cabinet ministers to court, along with Prime Minister Hassan Diab, on suspicion of homicide and direct accusation of criminal negligence that led to the blast.
Diab refused to be interrogated as a suspect, claiming that when he came to office in January 2020 the ammonium nitrate had already been stocked at the Beirut port for years. He has since claimed that his interrogation was unconstitutional, something that can soon change as Diab prepares to leave office, now that a new prime minister-designate has been chosen to replace him, being Najib Mikati. When Mikati forms a government, Hassan Diab will have no choice but to stand trial.
Echoing similar positions were the three ministers summoned by Judge Sawan; Ali Hasan Khalil, Ghazi Zeiter and Yusuf Finianos. Hassan Khalil was a former finance minister and member of the Amal Movement, headed by the powerful Speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri. Zeiter and Finianos were former public works ministers who like Hasan Khalil, are also members of the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition. Zeiter was a member of Amal while Finianos was a member of the Marada Party that is headed by Suleiman Frangieh, a close ally of Hezbollah.
One minister agrees to be questioned
Only Finanious so far has agreed to be questioned, along with former Army Commander Jean Kahwaji. Khalil and Zeiter filed a lawsuit at the Court of Cassation, petitioning for the removal of Judge Sawan from his post, citing their immunity as parliamentarians from criminal persecution.
The investigations were suspended for two months and then in February 2021, Lebanon’s Court of Cassation abruptly dismissed Sawan from his post, under pressure from the Lebanese political elite. A new judge was named, Tarek Bitar, who recently widened the scope of his accusations, demanding that all three ministers are brought to court, while adding a fourth name to the list, being ex-Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, a protégé of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Khalil, Zeiter, and Machnouk are current MPs. Collectively they represent the two most powerful Sunni and Shiite political parties of Lebanon.
Aborting the investigation
On 2 July 2021, Judge Bitar requested that their parliamentary immunity be lifted, causing uproar among Lebanese politicians. In response 26 MPs representing Amal, Hezbollah, and the Future Movement, collectively signed a petition to take the matter to the Supreme Court, a higher court to judge senior officials, which requires a vote from the chamber of deputies. That would potentially delay the proceedings, in anticipation of eventually aborting them completely. Speaker Berri is yet to set a date for parliament to meet.
The investigations of both Fadi Sawan and Tarek Bitar proved that Lebanese customs knew of the ammonium nitrate, and so did the security apparatus and all four consecutive prime ministers, Najib Mikati (who was in power in 2013), Tammam Salam, Saad Hariri and Hassan Diab. Authorities had warned them — no less than 10 times — on the dangers of storing such material, yet no action was taken. All of these premiers are not too happy with Tarek Bitar’s investigations, fearing that once through with MPs, ministers and army generals, he will also call them into court. This would be especially problematic for Najib Mikati, slated to become the next prime minister.
“No one has ever been held accountable for any of the crimes that have affected the country since independence,” said veteran journalist Michael Young, a Senior Editor at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, speaking in a personal capacity.
He told Gulf News: “The postwar order was built specifically on a decision to avoid punishing those who had committed wartime crimes. I’m not surprised that the Lebanese will not get justice for what happened on August 4, 2020. I am surprised that they never seem to be angry enough to impose a change in the behaviour of the country’s political leaders and parties, who have systematically abused, harmed and robbed them. Passivity will only lead to more of the same in the future.”