Beirut blast victims’ families protest after lead investigator removed from role

Beirut blast victims’ families protest after lead investigator removed from role

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Families of people killed in the Beirut port explosion last August protested on Friday for a second day after a court removed the lead investigator into the blast in a severe setback to their campaign to hold those in power to account.

Relatives of victims of Beirut port explosion stand near burning tires during a protest, after a Lebanese court removed the judge leading the investigation into the explosion, outside the Justice Palace in Beirut, Lebanon February 19, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Around 70 people gathered in front of Beirut’s Palace of Justice on Friday, some burning tires to block roads or holding images of their dead relatives.

“Even when the case now goes to another judge, we will not give them our complete trust…the day that we discover a judge is being too lenient with the investigation we will stand up to them no matter who they are,” said Rima al-Zahed, 41, whose brother Amin died in the blast.

Judge Fadi Sawan charged three ex-ministers and the outgoing prime minister with negligence over the blast in December, but the four did not appear for questioning and accused him of overstepping his powers.

On Thursday, the Lebanese court of cassation dismissed Sawan from the investigation upon a request from two former ministers he had levelled charges against. The court cited “legitimate suspicion” over Sawan’s neutrality, partly because his house was damaged in the blast which devastated much of the capital.

“No one in the political class wants an investigation like this,” Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center said.

“That would open up a Pandora’s box of justice and these are politicians used to getting away with major crimes since the Lebanese civil war…the judiciary is one of the most distrusted institutions in the republic.”

Two hundred people died in the August blast when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, stored unsafely for years, detonated at the capital’s port.

Before the investigation can resume, the ministry of justice will have to appoint a new judge to lead it who will also need the approval of the higher judicial council, setting the whole process back.

For some the judge’s dismissal is a blow, but Lebanese analyst Sarkis Naoum does not believe a domestic investigation will ever deliver any real results.

“Our state has become a failed state which means failed security agencies, failed institutions, failed judiciary and failed everything so I never believed that judge Sawan was going to reach anything,” Naoum said.

The Aug. 4 blast, the largest non-nuclear explosion to date, killed two hundred people, injured thousands and destroyed entire neighbourhoods.

Documents seen by Reuters showed both the president and prime minister had been warned just over two weeks before the blast that the ammonium nitrate, stored unsafely for years, could destroy the capital if it exploded.

Around 25 people are currently in jail pending investigation over the blast so far, including the Beirut port chief and customs chief. No senior politicians have been held accountable so far.

“Those in jail they are the small fish,” Naoum said.

With the lead investigator appointed by Lebanon’s executive, and the use of a court of exception, the investigation does not lend itself to impartiality, said Lynn Malouf, Amnesty International deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“I wouldn’t say this move took us back to square zero because we were always at square zero from the very beginning,” she said.

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The court of exception is a special court set up to have jurisdiction over cases referred to it by the government such as assassinations of senior politicians and cases linked to political violence and terrorism.

“It was set up with the view of the politicians being the victims rather than the perpetrators,” Malouf said.

“A domestic-led investigation cannot deliver on justice.”

But so far there has been little interest in an international investigation into the blast. Hage Ali sees a different kind of search prevailing.

“A search by the Lebanese political class for a scapegoat…no politician will be indicted unless there is political consensus over a scapegoat,” he said.

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