Lebanese authorities have spent the past year shamelessly obstructing victims’ quest for truth and justice following the catastrophic port explosion in Beirut, said Amnesty International ahead of the one-year anniversary of the blast.
More than 217 people were killed and 7,000 injured when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut’s port on 4 August 2020. The blast displaced 300,000 people and caused widespread destruction and devastation, damaging buildings up to 20km away.
Throughout the year, the Lebanese authorities’ relentless efforts to shield officials from scrutiny have repeatedly hampered the course of the investigation. Authorities dismissed the first judge appointed to the investigation after he summoned political figures for questioning, and have so far rejected the new investigative judge’s requests to lift MPs’ immunity and to question senior members of the security forces in connection with the tragedy.
“The Beirut blast, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, inflicted widespread devastation and caused immense suffering. Lebanese authorities promised a swift investigation; instead they have brazenly blocked and stalled justice at every turn, despite a tireless campaign for justice and criminal accountability by survivors and families of victims,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“The Lebanese government tragically failed to protect the lives of its people, just as it has failed for so long to protect basic socio-economic rights. In blocking the judge’s attempts to summon political officials, the authorities have struck yet another blow to the people of Lebanon. Given the scale of this tragedy, it is astounding to see how far the Lebanese authorities are prepared to go to shield themselves from scrutiny.”
As the first anniversary of the blast approaches, deeply traumatized residents of Beirut are still reeling from its catastrophic impact.
Mireille Khoury, whose 15-year-old son Elias died of injuries sustained in the explosion, described the horrific events of that day to Amnesty International:
“The day of 4 August seemed like the end of the world. We thought it was just a fire… I passed out and then woke up to find my house in ruins. My daughter asked me what happened. She was injured and I was injured too. I rushed outside and found my son on the staircase injured and covered with blood… On that day, they ruined our lives,” she said
“If Lebanese authorities allow this crime to pass without accountability, they will go down in history in the most horrendous manner,” she said, adding that she believes an international investigation is the only means to deliver justice.
Leaked official documents indicate that Lebanese customs, military and security authorities, as well as the judiciary, had warned successive governments of the dangerous stockpile of explosive chemicals at the port on at least 10 occasions in the past six years, yet no action was taken. The President also stated that he had knowledge of the danger but had “left it to the port authorities to address.”
Despite this, MPs and officials have been claiming their right to immunity throughout the investigation. This tactic has been used repeatedly in a decades-long context of post-conflict amnesty in Lebanon, effectively shielding suspected perpetrators of serious crimes under international law, and denying thousands of victims any form of acknowledgment, let alone justice.
Obstruction of justice
On 10 December 2020, Judge Fadi Sawan, the first investigative judge appointed, charged former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, former Public Works ministers Youssef Fenianos and Ghazi Zeaiter, and caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, with criminal “negligence.” All refused to appear before the judge. Hassan Diab decried the decision as a violation of the constitution. Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil filed a lawsuit with the Court of Cassation to remove Judge Sawan from the investigation, citing immunity for MPs from criminal prosecution.
In response, Judge Sawan suspended the investigation on 17 December 2020 for nearly two months. Shortly afterwards on 18 February 2021, Lebanon’s Court of Cassation dismissed Judge Sawan. The decision to remove Judge Sawan was received with great anger by the families of victims, who took to the streets condemning political interference in the probe.
On 2 July 2021, the new judge assigned to the case, Judge Tarek Bitar, submitted a request to parliament to lift parliamentary immunity for MPs Ali Hasan Khalil, Ghazi Zeaiter and Nouhad Machnouk, along with several other high-ranking officials.
In response, 26 MPs from the blocs of Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, Amal Movement, Hezbollah, and Future Movement, signed a petition requesting the launch of a parallel proceedings in an attempt to avoid interrogation by Judge Bitar. Six MPs later withdrew their signatures, following the outcry on social media from victims’ families and civil society activists.
In a separate move, the Minister of Interior rejected a request by Judge Bitar to question the head of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, one of the country’s top generals. The judge is appealing the decision. In recent more positive moves, both the Beirut and Tripoli bar associations have lifted immunities from officials who are also lawyers – but parliamentary immunities, to date, remain in place.
Granting immunity to political officials directly contradicts Lebanon’s obligations under the UN 2016 Minnesota Protocol which aims to protect the right to life and advance justice, accountability for unlawful deaths. The protocol identifies a potentially unlawful death as occurring “where the State may have failed to meet its obligations to protect life”. In such cases, states have a duty to hold perpetrators accountable, and impunity stemming from “political interference” or “blanket amnesties” directly contradicts that duty.
Amnesty International stands with families of victims in calling on Lebanese authorities to immediately lift all immunities granted to officials, regardless of their role or position.
In June, Amnesty International wrote to the UN Human Rights Council with a coalition of over 50 Lebanese and international organisations, calling for an international investigative mission, such as a one-year fact-finding mission, into the Beirut blast. The letter highlighted the procedural and systemic flaws which prevent Lebanon from meeting its international obligations to provide redress to victims.
“The weeks of protests by survivors and families of victims are a stark reminder of what is at stake. Their pain and anger have been exacerbated as, time and time again, authorities obstruct their right to truth and justice,” said Lynn Maalouf.
“The UN Human Rights Council must heed their call and urgently set up an investigative mechanism to identify whether conduct by the state caused or contributed to the unlawful deaths, and what steps need to be taken to ensure an effective remedy to victims.”