A year after the deadly explosion at the port of Beirut, despite the scale of a tragedy that has traumatized Lebanon, no one responsible has been brought to justice and the investigation is stalling, obstructed by political interventions.
On August 4, 2020, firefighters are dispatched to the port to extinguish a fire. Shortly after 6 p.m., the explosion left 214 dead and more than 6,500 injured, devastating entire neighborhoods of the capital.
The same evening, the authorities blame the tragedy on 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, abandoned for more than six years at the port
without precautionary measures.
A year later, public opinion is still awaiting the conclusions of the Lebanese investigation, denouncing political interference that could sabotage the affair. The gray areas remain and the same questions remain unanswered.
Lots of questions
What caused this explosion? Why was ammonium nitrate forgotten at the port, despite the dangers? Who, among political decision-makers and security officials, knew about it?
Some fear justice will never be served in this case. As the examining magistrate Tarek Bitar seeks to indict several former ministers and high ranking officials, the immunity they enjoy because of their responsibilities is put forward to hamper legal proceedings.
They are just trying to escape justice.
Despite these obstacles, the investigation is
three quarters complete, tells AFP a judicial source close to the case. And Mr. Bitar hopes to announce the findings of the investigation
by the end of the year.
In November 2013, the ship Rhosus, flying the Moldovan flag, left Georgia for Mozambique, was calling in Beirut with ammonium nitrate on board.
At the time, due to a grim legal case against its owner, the vessel was immobilized. The cargo had been unloaded in 2014 and placed in hangar number 12, a dilapidated warehouse. Abandoned, the Rhosus ended up sinking in 2018.
A private Mozambican company, Fabrica de Explosivos de Mocambique (FEM), explained in 2020 to theAFPthat it had ordered ammonium nitrate from Georgia in 2013, but that this cargo had never been delivered to it.
According to Mr. Lahoud, the investigation revealed the identity of several parties involved, including the name of the owner of the shipping company responsible for transporting the cargo and the name of the Mozambican bank that financed the operation.
The justice has determined the responsibilities regarding the party that brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut and the reasons why the cargo was unloaded, how it was stored, why it was not destroyed or returned abroad, he adds.
But the investigation has not yet determined whether other parties would be behind the shipment of the Rhosus.
The local investigation also looked at press reports establishing alleged links between three businessmen of Syrian and Russian nationality with Savaro Limited.
It was this company, specializing in the trade of chemicals, which had received the order from the Mozambican company. It has an address in London, but its real owners remain unknown.
Weakness investigation, according to Mr. Lahoud: the fact that it has still not determined the cause of the explosion. Was it the fire?
If so, how was it triggered? wonders the lawyer, for whom nothing yet allows to rule out the thesis of a
sabotage or a
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Immediately after the tragedy, security sources had mentioned welding work which could be at the origin of the fire. But some observers remain cautious.
Judge Bitar wishes to conduct a reconstruction at the site of the explosion to determine the causes of the fire. He also requested the cooperation of several countries regarding the origin of the cargo, including asking France, the United States and Italy to obtain satellite images in the hope of seeing what was happening at the port on August 4, 2020.
France assured that it had no satellites over Lebanon on the day of the explosion, according to the judicial source.
The absence of such images also makes it difficult to know whether certain quantities of ammonium nitrate have been quietly stolen from the warehouse in recent years, adds Lahoud.
Indeed, according to experts, given the magnitude of the explosion, the quantity of ammonium nitrate at the port should be limited to a few hundred tonnes – and not reach 2,750 tonnes, as initially announced.
The investigation is stalling
If the authorities have always categorically refused any international investigation, France has launched its own procedure since French people are among the victims.
In mid-June, around 50 NGOs called for a UN investigation, citing
flagrant political interference, the immunity of senior politicians, but also
due process violations.
The previous investigating judge had he not been recused in February, after having provoked an outcry within the political class by indicting the resigning Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers?
However, for a large part of public opinion, the whole Republic must be held to account. On July 20, 2020, just a few days before the tragedy, President Michel Aoun and Mr. Diab had thus received a warning from the State Security.
In an internal report consulted by theAFP
hazardous materials and warned against a
huge fire who could
almost completely destroy the port.
To date, Hassan Diab is indicted and 18 people are in custody in connection with the case, including the director of customs, Badri Daher, and the director of the port, Hassan Koraytem.
Mr. Bitar called on Parliament to lift the immunity of three deputies who had held ministerial posts – Ali Hassan Khalil (Finance), Ghazi Zaayter (Public Works and Transport) and Nouhad al-Machnouk (Interior) -, in view of an indictment.
He also wants to sue the director general of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, and the head of State Security, Tony Saliba. The interior minister, however, refused to allow prosecution against Mr. Ibrahim. As for the three former ministers, Parliament is procrastinating.
According to the judicial source, the prosecutions nevertheless concern those responsible
which it has been proven, by documents and witnesses, that they were aware of the presence of ammonium nitrate and its dangers.