No Progress in Probe of Beirut Blast on One-Year Anniversary

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

The people of Lebanon noted with dismay on Tuesday that the first anniversary of the huge and deadly Port of Beirut explosion has arrived without any real progress in the much-touted probe to determine who was responsible.

“Numerous investigations have been launched in an effort to find out who is accountable for the country’s most tragic peacetime disaster, which killed 214 people and left 300,000 homeless,” Al-Arabiya noted on Tuesday. “However, no top officials have been questioned over the disaster so far, further angering many crisis-weary Lebanese.”

Al-Arabiya added that France is also attempting to investigate the blast because some of its citizens were killed, but Lebanese political leaders have “repeatedly refused international investigations.”

The FBI has also assisted with the investigation and concluded the incredible explosion – one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever recorded – was caused by only one-fifth of the dangerous ammonium nitrate from the 2013 shipment suspected of delivering explosives to the port. Lebanese officials quietly agree that some of the remainder was probably stolen and remains at large.

The speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Nabih Berri, claimed last week that the legislature is prepared to waive immunity for its members so they can be questioned but still would not commit to exactly when, or how, the waiving and questioning would happen. Multiple requests from investigating judge Tarek Bitar for parliament to allow its members to be questioned without immunity have been ignored.

Survivors of the explosion were skeptical of pledges by Lebanese lawmakers to cooperate with investigators, viewing them as theatrics intended to undermine Bitar’s probe and other effective investigations. Families of the victims blasted last week’s parliamentary proposal to convene a special council as “fraudulent” and a “cover-up of the crime of the century,” a sham intended primarily to shield lawmakers from Bitar’s demands for testimony.

Bitar’s predecessor as lead investigating judge, Fadi Sawwan, was removed under political pressure in February after he dared to charge two former ministers with criminal negligence. The excuse employed to do away with Sawwan was that he could not be impartial because his house was damaged in the explosion.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun told prosecutor Ghassan Ouidat on Friday that he is prepared to give a statement about the explosion, a year later.

Aoun has failed throughout the year to install a replacement for Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who resigned after the explosion, leaving Lebanon without a functioning permanent government. The current Prime Minister-designate, Najib Mikati, on Monday announced he has lost all hope of forming a government before the Beirut blast anniversary, which will be observed on Wednesday morning. Caretaker ministers promised to maintain order and “prevent security breaches” during expected unrest on the anniversary day.

“I don’t see a minister or president or parliament speaker. I am seeing the person who killed my brother and others with him. This is what gives me strength. I see that I have nothing to lose,” said determined survivor Ibrahim Hoteit on Tuesday. Hoteit sold his business to finance his quest for justice and said he has been threatened with death for persisting. He recalled burying the remains of his firefighter brother in a container no larger than a shoebox.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report on Tuesday that implicated “senior Lebanese officials” in the Beirut explosion and said, “systemic problems in the legal and political system are allowing them to avoid accountability.”

“The evidence currently available also indicates that multiple Lebanese authorities were, at a minimum, criminally negligent under Lebanese law in their handling of the cargo, creating an unreasonable risk to life,” the report alleged. 

President Aoun and former Prime Minister Diab were named among the officials who were aware of the danger but failed to protect the public. HRW reported finding a document from July 2020 that proved both of them knew the explosive chemicals stored at the port could potentially destroy the entire city.

HRW also obtained documentation that showed customs officials pleading with the Lebanese judiciary to let them sell or relocate the ammonium nitrate, but at least six requests over the course of six years were rebuffed on dubious “procedural” grounds. The Lebanese military refused to seize and destroy it, even though they have done so with hazardous materials on previous occasions. Administrators from several different agencies played hot-potato with the ammonium nitrate, each claiming that one of the others had jurisdiction over the threat. 

“The U.N. Human Rights Council should mandate an investigation, and other countries should issue sanctions against the officials responsible for ongoing abuses and efforts to impede justice,” HRW advised.

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