Lebanese Officials Try to Limit Inquiry Into Deadly Beirut Blast

Months after a huge explosion in Beirut’s port, the investigation has become mired in politics as powerful forces band together to block efforts to hold leaders accountable.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — More than four months after the largest explosion in Lebanon’s history sent a shock wave of death and destruction through Beirut, not a single official has accepted responsibility for the blast or publicly explained how a stockpile of explosive material was left unsecured in the Beirut port for six years.

In fact, powerful politicians are working to block the judge in charge of the investigation from questioning senior officials, much less holding them to account. On Thursday, the judge paused the inquiry to respond to an effort by two officials to have him removed from the case.

The blast — which killed 200 people, wounded thousands and inflicted billions of dollars in damage — was the starkest example yet of the grave dangers posed by the chronic corruption and mismanagement that have left the Lebanese with a dysfunctional state, poor services and a collapsing economy.

A broad coalition of angry citizens has cast the explosion as a watershed moment that could lead to real change in the way Lebanon is governed and break the culture of impunity that has long protected politicians from accountability. But they face fierce resistance from a political seçkine determined to preserve its prerogatives.

“This blast was a milestone in Lebanese history,” said Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer who heads The Meşru Agenda, a rights watchdog. “It is not just about the blast, it is the whole system. If we fail in this battle, we will not be able to hold anyone accountable for the country’s collapse.”

Lebanese Officials Try to Limit Inquiry Into Deadly Beirut Blast

The Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port killed 200 people, wounded thousands and caused billions of dollars in damage.Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Damage from the August disaster still scars much of central Beirut.

Inside the port, gutted grain silos loom over the blast crater and demolished storage hangars. Downtown, metal sheets cover entrances to gutted shops and hotels. In residential neighborhoods, scaffolding climbs apartment buildings where families are still trying to replace blown-out windows and replace furniture.

The government has done little in the hardest hit neighborhoods, so charities have taken the lead in piecemeal reconstruction efforts.

The explosion compounded the trauma of existing political and economic crises. Lebanon’s currency was collapsing, its banks were refusing to give people their money and its politicians had repeatedly failed to make reforms required to unlock international aid.

Street protests calling for an end to corruption and changes to Lebanon’s political system had torn Beirut apart, but failed to shake a system dominated by sectarian political parties that use the state to expand their power and enrich themselves and their loyalists.

The explosion was caused by the sudden combustion of a large stockpile of ammonium nitrate, a compound used to make explosives, that had been stored haphazardly in the Beirut port despite repeated warnings about its danger.

Antigovernment protests that began long before the explosion escalated afterward as demonstrators demanded an end to the system that allowed it to happen.Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Prime Minister Hassan Diab promised a comprehensive investigation, and the task fell to a 60-year-old judge with little public profile, Fadi Sawan. Judge Sawan began questioning people in a windowless office in the Hall of Justice that was so small there was scarcely room for the case files, an associate said. He has since acquired more space, but his staff consists of only two clerks, who take notes by hand.

His task is immense: not only to determine what caused the explosion, but also to search for evidence of criminality related to the arrival of the ship that brought the chemicals to Beirut in 2013, the decision to store them in the port a year later and their handling since.

That mission put the judge on a collision course with powerful figures. Documents obtained by The New York Times and other news outlets after the blast showed that a range of senior officials had been warned about the ammonium nitrate — including the president, the prime minister, the head of the army, and a number of judges and ministers — and failed to have it removed or protected.

This month, Judge Sawan stunned the political establishment by charging four powerful politicians with criminal neglect causing death: Mr. Diab, who resigned along with his cabinet after the blast but has continued in a caretaker capacity; two former ministers of public works who oversaw the port; and a former finance minister who ran the customs authority.

Almost immediately, a range of political forces banded together to accuse the judge of overstepping his bounds.

Mourning a relative who died in the blast. The explosion compounded the trauma of Lebanon’s existing political and economic crises. Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

The political party of President Michel Aoun said the judge might have broken the law. Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite Muslim militia and political party, accused him of “political targeting.” Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the most prominent Sunni Muslim politician, met with Mr. Diab to show solidarity against what he called “the clear and flagrant violation of the Constitution.”

None of the newly charged men have submitted to questioning, and two of them, who have also claimed immunity as sitting members of Parliament, filed a court motion to have Judge Sawan replaced. On Thursday, the judge suspended the inquiry for 10 days in order to respond.

Further escalating the challenge to his authority, the caretaker interior minister, Muhammad Fahmi, said this past week that he would not ask the security forces to arrest the accused ministers, even if warrants were issued.

The judge’s critics argue that current and former government ministers can be tried only by a special tribunal after they have been indicted by a two-thirds vote in Parliament.

Such a tribunal has never been activated in Lebanon’s history, nor has Parliament made any effort to do so since the explosion.

“What bigger event than the destruction of the port and half of Beirut do they need to constitute this council?” Charles Rizk, a former justice minister, said in an interview. “All of this is a hoax, a fraud to make everyone forget who was really responsible.”


Source: The New York Times

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