On August 4, 2020, at 6:08 pm local time, eyewitnesses reported a first explosion at the Port of Beirut after a fire broke out in hanger 12 next to the port’s grain silos. A few minutes later, the roof of the warehouse caught fire, initiating a huge explosion, followed by a series of smaller blasts that some witnesses thought were fireworks. Seconds later, “there was a colossal explosion that sent a mushroom cloud into the air and a supersonic blast-wave radiating through the city.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the explosion, the first of its kind in the history of Lebanon, killed 218 people and wounded more than 7,000 others including 1,000 children. Marwan Abboud, Beirut’s Governor, told reporters that “Beirut has become a devastated city… Half of it was destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of residents will not be able to return to their homes before two or three months.” The material damage to the city is estimated to cost around $15 billion dollars.
According to Human Rights Watch, the explosion killed 218 people and wounded more than 7,000 others including 1,000 children.
Hours after the blast occurred, former US President Donald Trump told reporters that his generals believed that “it was an attack… it was a bomb of some kind.” Though, Trump later walked back his claims, saying, “Whatever happened, it’s terrible. But they don’t really know what it is. Nobody knows yet. At this moment, they’re looking. How could you say accident?” he told reporters. Meanwhile, witnesses in Beirut said that they heard sounds of airplanes in the sky minutes before the blasts and fear that Israeli airplanes could be behind the attack.
Although full details behind the cause of the blasts have not been clearly explained to this day, some important aspects of what caused the catastrophe could not be hidden from the public. Shortly after the blasts, Lebanon’s Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told the press that the blast seems to have been caused by an explosion of over 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a dock warehouse, since it was seized from a cargo ship in 2014.
Ammonium nitrate can be readily used to manufacture explosive materials. Amid confusion as to what caused the blasts and why the chemical compound was stored at the port despite warnings against keeping hazardous materials near residential areas, an investigation process was necessary to see who was responsible for the disaster.
After a three-week wrangling of deciding who to name as the investigative judge and following the rejection without explanations of two nominees for the job by a government-appointed judicial body, Lebanon’s Minister of Justice, Marie-Claude Najem, named Judge Fadi Sawan for the job. Sawan, who has a history of cozy relations with the Assad regime, had to walk over a tight rope right from the very first day. He took the position two weeks after the explosion, amid reports that important evidence and documents related to the case may have been destroyed before the beginning of the investigation.
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A few months later, Judge Sawan accused of negligence Hassan Diab, who had assumed his Prime Minister position since January and resigned after the blast on August 10— though he continued to serve as caretaker —and several former ministers, and summoned them for questioning. Diab and the former ministers rejected the allegations and accused the Judge of violating legal and constitutional procedures, demanding him to be recused. Both Sunni and Shiite ruling parties insisted that Sawan be replaced. The bickering ended with the Lebanese Court of Cassation demanding Sawan to step down. It is not clear, however, why a lead judge would summon a caretaker Prime Minister who was new on the job for questioning in an eight-year-old negligence case.
On February 19, 2021, less than six months after appointing Sawan, Lebanon’s Justice Minister appointed Judge Tarek Bitar to continue the investigation. Bitar spent the first three to four months of his new mission studying the case, which was followed by summoning a number of ministers close to the Syrian Regime and Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah. He also called for the interrogation of several politicians and officials, including current and former security leaders. Nasrallah, in turn, criticized Bitar and accused the investigation process of being “politicized.”
Bitar, like his predecessor, encountered obstacles, some of which were legal and constitutional, revolving around the immunity enjoyed by politicians.
Bitar, like his predecessor, encountered obstacles, some of which were legal and constitutional, revolving around the immunity enjoyed by politicians and the constitutional articles that limit the consideration of any accusations they face in the so-called Presidents and Ministers Trial Council.
Eventually, Judge Bitar was unable to interrogate any of the people he summoned. Instead, the Judge became the target of political campaigns accusing him of politicizing the file or attacking personalities belonging to certain political currents and not others. The criticism leveled at Bitar by his adversaries soon spread on social media and became very polarizing. Campaigns and counter-campaigns also found their way to television screens and newspaper pages.
Soon, the controversy over Bitar turned into battles in which political parties and their supporters exchanged accusations of politicizing the issue of the port explosion and denunciating each other of hiding the truth. Meanwhile, pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its allies accused Bitar of political bias in his probe into the August explosion, leading to boiling tensions. Violence soon erupted, resulting in the killing of seven people in a rally organized by Hezbollah and its ally Amal, demanding Bitar’s dismissal.
The only glaring fact that transpired from the devastating blasts of Beirut is that the investigation is going nowhere. Nonetheless, independent international organizations revealed that the ammonium nitrate shipment that appeared in Beirut eight years ago could not be an innocent error.
The only glaring fact that transpired from the devastating blasts of Beirut is that the investigation is going nowhere.
Further suspicions were raised when it was reported that part of the shipment that was supposed to be in the port was not there and could have been “siphoned” earlier. It is also no secret that the barrel bombs that the Syrian regime has been using indiscriminately against its civilian population for the last eight years are made of ammonium nitrate.
Independent investigations revealed that the company that delivered the ammonium nitrate to Beirut was a shell company whose owners are of Russian and Syrian origins who were sanctioned by the US for illicit relations with the Assad regime. There are even suspicions that the cargo was not planned to go anywhere in Africa but was intended to remain in Beirut. Moreover, most of the Lebanese officials at the center of the investigation work for the Hezbollah party and the Amal movement, both of which have close ties to Syria.
Any serious investigation to provide further insight into the blasts would expose the hidden connection between the officials responsible for the Port of Beirut and Hezbollah, Amal, the Syrian regime, and other foreign nations. Consequently, the pro-Syria parties in Lebanon would probably never allow a meaningful investigation into the blasts to take place as this could indict the many powerful parties inside and outside the country. A true investigation requires judicial independence which Lebanon lacks. Thus, under the prevailing circumstances, justice will probably never be served.