A year on, politicians accused of hindering Beirut blast justice

A year after a massive explosion at Beirut Port devastated the Lebanese capital, the victims’ grieving families are still waiting for answers, accountability and justice.

More than 200 people were killed and 6,500 wounded when hundreds of tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate fertiliser stored in the port for six years ignited on August 4, 2020, in what was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

Human rights groups and families of the victims have accused the country’s leadership of obstructing Judge Tarek Bitar’s investigation, which was launched shortly after the disaster.

A Lebanese court had removed his predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawwan, in February, after he charged three former ministers and outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab with criminal negligence.

“We had faith that Lebanese judges with integrity could carry out an investigation,” Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his younger brother, 46-year-old port firefighter Tharwat Hoteit, in the explosion.

“Judge Bitar proved he has integrity, but the problem is that we don’t have honourable politicians.”

Hoteit is part of an association of families who lost relatives in the disaster. They have lobbied Parliament to compensate their families and have held regular protests calling on officials to allow the probe to continue.

So far, 25 people have been detained in connection with the explosion – mostly junior and mid-level port workers and officials. Thirteen have been released, while Head of Customs Badri Daher and head of the Beirut Port Authority Hasan Kraytem are still being held.

Officials have so far rejected Bitar’s requests to lift the immunity of several high-ranking lawmakers and security chiefs so they can be questioned on the suspicion of criminal negligence, as well as homicide with probable intent.

The officials include General Security chief Major-General Abbas Ibrahim, State Security head Major-General Tony Saliba, ex-Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, former Public Works Ministers Ghazi Zeiter and Yousef Finianos, and ex-Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk.

‘Total impunity’

In late July, at least 50 MPs endorsed a motion to lift the immunity of Zeiter, Khalil and Machnouk, who are currently MPs, so they could be questioned and potentially tried at the Supreme Council, a judicial body charged with matters of impeachment.

However, the families of the victims and lawyer activists criticised the move as an attempt to shield officials from Bitar’s jurisdiction, as the Supreme Council comprises members of parliament and has never conducted a trial in its history.

MPs told Al Jazeera they are simply following the country’s constitution.

“Parliament is very interested in lifting immunity, but in line with the law,” said Deputy Speaker Elie Ferzli

However, Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer and co-founder of rights group Legal Agenda, accused Lebanese political and security officials of using and interpreting laws to work in the best interest of fellow parliamentarians, many of whom hail from the same political parties.

“The judge should be the decision-maker here and not the MPs,” Saghieh told Al Jazeera, adding he fears “total impunity”.

“Political institutions have not been cooperating with the judge,” he said.

In the face of growing pressure and campaigns against them, a number of political leaders, including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri, have called for lifting the immunity of officials. But Saghieh and other activist lawyers are sceptical as to whether this will actually lead to any substantial action, with families still concerned that authorities will seek to protect current and former ministers by shielding them from Bitar’s jurisdiction.

Over the past year, the families’ rhetoric towards the government has changed. Initially, most relatives appealed to the authorities for cooperation and support in good faith, holding protests and news conferences that were largely quiet and solemn. However, in recent months, they have publicly called out officials and blamed them for what they say is a cover-up of the investigation. In mid-July, relatives protested at caretaker Minister of the Interior Mohamad Fahmi’s residence and scuffled with riot police who beat them and other protesters with batons and lobbed tear gas at them.

On Monday morning, they gave the government 30 hours to lift officials’ immunity, or else “bones will break”.

Hoteit said he has received “personal threats” on two occasions because of the protests he helped organise and his outspoken criticism of the government.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch released a damning report into the disaster, saying Lebanese officials including former finance and public works and transport ministers have “violated the right to life” by not adequately addressing and taking care of the ammonium nitrate cargo in the years leading to the explosion.

“Official correspondence reflects, the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Public Works and Transport officials failed to adequately investigate the combustible nature of the ship’s cargo and its danger,” the organisation’s Crisis and Conflict Director Lama Fakih said at a news conference . “Not just port, but also customs and army officials have ignored steps they could have taken to destroy or clear the ammonium nitrate.”

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