Lebanon: justice delayed is justice denied

Summary: in the midst of a collapsing economy and a rapid rise in Covid-19 numbers, the investigation into the Beirut port blast has ground to a halt.

Six months ago today Beirut was rocked by a huge explosion. With that in mind, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report titled “Lebanon: No Justice 6 Months After Blast.”  The title aptly sums up what the people of Lebanon are experiencing: a terrible tragedy that ripped their capital city apart and thus far the system and the elites within it who bear ultimate responsibility have escaped consequences.

The consequences for Beirut are there for all to see: 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate left stored in a port warehouse in unsafe conditions for six years caught fire, burst into a massive fireball and then an explosion equivalent to one-twentieth of the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima; at least 204 people were killed, 7500 wounded and 300,000 left homeless; the property damage amounted to US$15 billion.

As the HRW report comments the investigation headed by Judge Fadi Sawan has been paused since mid-December. The timing had more than a little to do with the charging, on 10 December, of the former prime minister Hassan Diab  – who resigned after the explosion – along with three other former cabinet ministers. They were the first and thus far only senior politicians to be named in the judge’s investigation. All too predictably the response was to use the judicial system to challenge Sawan’s authority, effectively knocking his investigation into touch until the court reaches a decision. For his part, Diab released a statement that said “The prime minister has a clear conscience and is confident that his hands are clean.”

That confidence is not shared by the people of Lebanon. Rightly so. Diab had been prime minister for six months at the time of the explosion.  But then three other prime ministers, including the current designate PM Saad Hariri, had been in place at some point  from the time the ammonium nitrate was seized from a Russian ship and put in the warehouse in September 2013. None of them has been brought to account or even required to testify.

Meanwhile Sawan’s investigation has resulted in charges against 37 individuals. HRW commented: “Those detained are mostly mid to low-level customs, port, and security officials; and their families and lawyers say that the judicial authorities have not yet presented the specific charges or evidence against them.” It seems, too, that due process is being denied those who have been charged.

Scapegoating minor players together with the denial of due process whilst ignoring major malefactors is something Lebanon is all too familiar with. But the scars from the blast are especially deep as is the anger at a system that for decades has seen political elites enrich themselves at the expense of the people. As the country’s economy continues its downward spiral and Covid-19 surges the anger is flooding back into the streets.

In the impoverished northern coastal city of Tripoli it exploded into violence over four days last week leaving one young man dead and hundreds, including dozens of security officers, injured. The immediate spark was a government ordered  24 hour curfew as it struggles to cope with the pandemic. But as International Crisis Group notes the violence and frustration in Tripoli reflects a grim wider reality:

(Since 2019), at least 500,000 have lost their businesses and jobs. The local currency’s value has dropped by more than 80 per cent in the black market, fuelling inflation. People have lost billions in savings and, according to the World Bank, more than half of Lebanese had fallen below the poverty line already in May 2020. Government officials estimate that some 75 per cent of Lebanese nationals need aid.

Saad Hariri has had nothing to say, as yet, about the Tripoli protests.  Nor has he shown himself at all willing to ensure a thorough and independent investigation of the Beirut blast is carried out. Rather he saw it as appropriate to meet in Cairo with the Egyptian president Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. Quoting what it called “Center House sources” –  referring to the palatial Hariri family home in an exclusive district of Beirut –  the Lebanese news site Naharnet  said his visit to Cairo was “part of a regional and Western tour in an attempt to restore Lebanon’s ties with brethren and friendly nations.” To which ordinary Lebanese may reasonably ask “what about your ties and responsibilities to us?”

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