A large crowd gathered on July 14 in front of the house of Lebanon’s Minister of Interior, Mohamed Fahmi, holding signs and confronting the security forces protecting his home. They had one shared demand: justice for the victims of the August 4, 2020 explosion. The protesters also sought to fight against impunity for the officials and MPs involved in the catastrophe. Later in the day, the Minister fled his home, as clashes between demonstrators and security forces left dozens injured.
Arriving with portraits of their deceased relatives and symbolic coffins, the families of the victims accused the Lebanese authorities of seeking to bury the file and obstruct the work of justice. Indeed, on the same day, the Minister of Interior had refused Judge Tarek Bitar’s right to question the Director of the General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, for the investigation of the blast. Moreover, the Parliament has been opposing for weeks now the lifting of parliamentary immunity for three MPs involved in the disaster.
The horrific explosion on August 4, 2020 – attributed to the storage of huge amounts of ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port, without preventive measures – caused the death of 217 people and injured 7,000 others. It also destroyed several neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital.
The horrific explosion on August 4, 2020 caused the death of 217 people and injured 7,000 others.
Prominent officials had been made aware of the security risk the large quantity of ammonium nitrate posed. In fact, several requests had been sent to the authorities by the judiciary and General Security as early as February 2015, the last one dating back to just two weeks before the explosion.
Families of the victims, along with local and international non-governmental organizations, have been suspicious of political interference in judicial affairs. Indeed, almost one year after the Beirut blast, no tangible results have been announced, though the Lebanese authorities had publicly promised right after the blast that the investigation “would only take five days.”
Human Rights Watch stated that it has documented “several flaws in the domestic investigation which render it unable to credibly deliver justice” including “blatant political interference, impunity for senior political officials, and a failure to respect fair trial standards.”
A Desperate Fight Against Impunity
A few weeks have passed since the current judicial investigator, Judge Tariq Al-Bitar, requested to hear from several current and former officials pertaining to the General Security, the Army, and the Parliament. Top figures such as the Director of General Security, as well as four MPs and three former ministers, are expected to give statements to the judge.
Meanwhile, the former Army Chief, Jean Kahwagi, left Lebanon permanently and does not intend to appear before the judiciary. This apparent dodging by Kahwagi highlights why Judge Bitar needs permission from the authorities to prosecute all the officials involved in the blast, which he has not been granted so far, on the pretext that they have parliamentary immunity.
For instance, Ali Hassan Khalil – the former Finance Minister and Assistant of the President of Parliament, Nabih Berri – will not appear before the public prosecutor. It is also worth noting that Khalil is currently under US sanctions, along with the former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who is close to Saad el Hariri, the former Prime Minister.
Although a request to lift the immunity of these parliamentarians was made to the Presidency of the Chamber of Deputies and the Justice Committee, it is likely to be denied. The deputies of the leading political parties in Lebanon – Amal, Future Current, and Hezbollah – are opposed to such a measure.
The Lebanese are witnessing a tug of war between the investigative judge and the Lebanese Parliament.
The Lebanese are thus witnessing a tug of war between the investigative judge and the Lebanese Parliament. The Parliament asked Judge Bitar to submit more elements and evidence indicating the guilt of the deputies, an appeal that was declined by the judge, who invoked the independence of justice and judicial secrecy.
The head of the Beirut Bar Association, Melhem Khalaf, who was elected with the support of the October 17 revolution movement that erupted in 2019, called for “excluding the crime of the port explosion from the immunity of officials.” Khalaf told Inside Arabia that it should be “considered as a crime of common law according to Article 70 of the constitution” and thus does not fall within the framework of immunity. He further asserted that “the crime, which is a tragedy for the victims’ parents, cannot be considered an accident.”
Victims’ Families Demand the Truth
William Noun, spokesman for the Martyrs’ Families of the Civil Defense association, told Inside Arabia that several public demonstrations will be organized until the anniversary of the explosion on August 4, which will be “a day of popular anger and civil disobedience.”
Noun does not pledge to maintain peaceful protests, pointing out the violent repression the protesters have faced during their previous gatherings. “[People] no longer have anything to lose and are ready for open confrontation with the [authorities]” until “immunities and all other obstacles to the investigation are lifted, and the indictment is issued against the culprits,” Noun avowed.
Local activist Lynn Mneimeh has been supporting the victims’ families as a member of the youth-led opposition group Minteshreen and has taken part in most of the protests related to the Beirut blast. “We will go to the house of each official involved in the Beirut blast, and make our voices heard,” Mneimeh told Inside Arabia.
Over 1,000 complaints have been filed by the Beirut Bar Association in relation to the investigation.
The families of the victims are calling for an indictment to be issued swiftly. They want to bring all responsible officials in front of international courts, especially since they believe the local judiciary system will not be able to hold the officials accountable. In addition, over 1,000 complaints have been filed by the Beirut Bar Association in relation to the investigation. Still, many hurdles could prevent the victims’ families from suing the state officials responsible.
The peaceful movements by the families of the victims have received encouragement by Amnesty International. Two days after the demonstration in front of Fahmy’s house, the organization released a press statement of support for the families and Judge Bitar in their judiciary struggle, and called for the creation of an international investigative mission into the Beirut blast.
Obstacles to the Investigation
Sahar Mandour, researcher at Amnesty International Lebanon, told Inside Arabia that the explosion in the port of Beirut violated the most basic right – the right to life – and requires a thorough and impartial investigation. “This impartiality is at risk when the executive authority appoints the judiciary,” according to Mandour.
Mandour further explained that there are two types of obstacles that could prevent the emergence of the truth regarding the Beirut blast. First, methodological hinderances, including the lack of independence of the judiciary from the executive authority; and secondly, procedural challenges, such as blatant political interference, failure to respect fair trial standards and due process violations, as well as the impunity of high-ranking political officials.
In the most recent developments, the Chamber of Deputies has sought to bypass the judiciary by making the criminal procedure specific to the President of the Council of Ministers and the ministers accused of high treason or serious breach of duty in office.
Under this procedure, indictment can only be decided by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Assembly. According to the Legal Agenda, an association fighting for the independence of the judiciary, this would constitute an encroachment on the judicial function and a violation of the principle of separation of powers, as the Parliament would become judge and party.
It appears Lebanese political authorities are harnessing all their capabilities to prevent the investigation from impacting them.
It appears Lebanese political authorities are harnessing all their capabilities to prevent the investigation from impacting them, as they are already facing international pressure and accusations of being responsible for the country’s unprecedented economic collapse.
Thus, while the Lebanese people prepare to commemorate the anniversary of the horrific explosion, on August 4, the truth of what really happened and who is responsible is still uncertain. The fate of the investigation remains dependent on the mobilization of the victims’ families – supported by the opposition movement – to finally bring justice for those affected by this massive catastrophe, which is considered the most powerful non-nuclear explosion in history.