BEIRUT: Hundreds of relatives of people who died last year in the explosion at Beirut’s port threw coffins over the fence at the residence of caretaker Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmy on Tuesday evening, as they attempted to storm the building.
They were protesting against his refusal to lift the immunity granted to Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, director-general of the General Security, who is a suspect in the investigation into the Aug. 4 blast.
Families of the victims are putting pressure on the authorities to rescind the immunity enjoyed by former ministers, current lawmakers and senior security officials who are accused by Judge Tarek Bitar, the judicial investigator in the case, of contributing to the disaster.
The families are preparing to mark the first anniversary of the explosion, which claimed the lives of 215 people, injured more 6,000, and destroyed Beirut’s waterfront along with large sections of neighboring residential areas. Judicial investigations into the case are continuing and have not yet reached the stage of issuing indictments.
The protesters carried coffins, symbolizing those of their children and other relatives, as they marched toward Fahmy’s residence in Beirut, where the Internal Security Forces were waiting.
Women dressed in black wept and shouted for the suspects in the case to be stripped of their immunity from prosecution. Men who lost their children in the explosion warned that Fahmy will be considered a terrorist if he fails to do so. “Woe betide you if you do not lift immunity,” they chanted.
The protest escalated into a confrontation with the security forces as the protesters tried to storm the residence and threw the coffins over its fence.
The women managed to reach the entrance to the building, where they were confronted by security forces. The protesters shouted insults directed at those responsible for the situation that led to the blast, which was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port since 2014 without proper safety precautions. The explosion has been ranked as one of the most powerful non-nuclear blasts in history.
The families of the victims, who also threw stones and tomatoes at the building, said they would end their protests when Fahmy lifts immunity from the suspects. They also urged the security forces “not to defend the officials who starved them.”
Some protesters spray-painted “$50” on shields carried by members of the security forces, saying: “This is what the value of your salaries has become because of these killers. Do not defend them; stand with us.”
The confrontation continued for more than three hours. Protesters eventually smashed glass at the building’s entrance, and riot police responded with tear gas canisters.
Families of the blast victims have been protesting daily outside of the homes of officials whose actions are blamed for the explosion, in an attempt to ensure that they appear in court to answer the charges. In the past few days they have protested at the residences of former ministers Nohad El-Machnouk and Ghazi Zaiter, and in front of parliament. A number of protesters and members of the security forces have been injured in the confrontations that ensued, and in a couple of cases people fainted as a result of exposure to tear gas.
Meanwhile, Judge Bitar refused to provide politicians with any additional documents relating to Al-Machnouk, Zaiter and former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil. Parliamentary authorities had demanded additional evidence from the judge before making a decision on the request to lift immunity.
Bitar was quoted as saying that he “is not obligated to submit any additional documents, because this would violate the confidentiality of the investigation.”
He has charged politicians and security officials, including Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba, the director-general of State Security, with a misdemeanor charge of negligence and a felony charge of possible intent to kill because they knew that explosive materials were being stored at the port in an unsafe manner but failed to act on that knowledge.