Why Lebanon’s hopes for an independent Beirut blast inquiry are fading

The destruction at Beirut port on August 5, 2020 in the aftermath of the massive explosion in the Lebanese capital. (AFP/File Photo)
The destruction at Beirut port on August 5, 2020 in the aftermath of the massive explosion in the Lebanese capital. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 22 September 2021

Why Lebanon’s hopes for an independent Beirut blast inquiry are fading

Why Lebanon’s hopes for an independent Beirut blast inquiry are fading
  • Stalled inquiry into 2020 explosion in focus as UNGA 2021 session kicks off its high-level week
  • Analysts say probe will remain in limbo unless foreign powers put pressure on the government

CHICAGO: There is a growing belief among Lebanese political analysts that the investigation into the Beirut blast of Aug. 4, 2020, will meet the same fate as the probe into the Feb. 14, 2005, explosion that killed Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, and 21 others.

Two explosions at the government-owned Port of Beirut claimed the lives of 218 people, injured more than 6,500 and left 300,000 homeless. The explosions resulted from a fire in a warehouse containing ammonium nitrate and caused damage worth an estimated $3 billion.

Meanwhile, 12 years after it was officially established, the Hariri investigation is in limbo. The sole individual indicted in absentia by the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a low-level Hezbollah operative called Salim Ayyash, has not been brought to justice.

Lebanese analysts warn the Beirut blast inquiry will also remain in limbo indefinitely unless international organizations and foreign powers put pressure on the government to allow a fully transparent investigation by an independent judicial system.

“The Beirut blast probe is not necessarily a domestic investigation with domestic implications and ramifications. It is also a global public opinion drive that will continue to evolve and involve international actors,” Christophe Abi-Nassif, Lebanon program director at the Middle East Institute, told Arab News. “Back in 2005, all it took was for the Hariri camp, the Future Movement and his son Saad Hariri to be satisfied with the arrangement.”

By contrast, the Beirut port explosion affected many families who have the power to demand the matter be fully investigated, Abi-Nassif said. “The families of the victims are at the heart of this investigation.”

On the first anniversary of the blast, Amnesty International, the international rights advocacy group, accused the Lebanese authorities of “shamelessly obstructing victims’ quest for truth and justice” in the months since the blast, actively shielding officials from scrutiny and hampering the course of the investigation.

In February, Fadi Sawan, the first judge appointed to lead the investigation, was dismissed after he summoned political figures for questioning. So far, the authorities have rejected requests by his replacement, Tarek Bitar, to lift the immunity granted to officials and to allow him question senior members of the security forces.

Leaked official documents indicate that Lebanese customs officials, military and security chiefs, and members of the judiciary warned successive governments about the danger posed by the stockpile of explosive chemicals at the port on at least 10 occasions during the six years it was stored at the port, yet no action was taken.




A wounded man sits on the ground waiting for aid at Beirut's port after the explosion. (AFP/File Photo)

MPs and officials are clinging to their right to immunity, effectively shielding suspects whose actions are blamed for causing the explosion, and denying thousands of victims the justice they demand.

Survivors of the blast and a raft of advocacy groups have revived their push for an “international, independent and impartial investigative mission” into the cause of the blast.

“An international investigation would not impede, but rather assist the domestic process,” they said in a joint statement delivered to the UN Human Rights Council on Sept. 15.

Although government interference in the investigation has been detrimental to its progress, Abi-Nassif believes that taking the matter entirely out of Lebanese hands would only harm its legitimacy.

INNUMBERS

* 300,000 - People left homeless. 

* 70,000 - Jobs lost after the explosion. 

* 163 - Schools destroyed. 

* 6 - Hospitals destroyed. 

* 0 - Number of people sentenced over blast.

Source: UN 

“On the one hand, you want international involvement because you want a lot of pressure exerted. On the other hand, you do not want to go down this path where you are giving grounds for Lebanese politicians to say this is clearly a plot to incriminate us, regardless of whether they are incriminated or should be incriminated,” he said. “This will be the leeway they use to try to dismantle the integrity of the investigation.”

Prominent among those who are convinced that the blast investigation has been stymied by the Lebanese political elite and that foreign powers have a responsibility to get the probe back on track, is Ed Gabriel, president of the American Task Force on Lebanon.

“Not much has been done. There has been an attempt to investigate the port through transparent judicial means in Lebanon. It has been held up by the parliament. There seems to be no consensus in the government,” Gabriel said.

“The good news is that the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati has taken the reins of power. The Mikati government seems very interested in a close working relationship with the West and is very tuned in with wanting to meet the immediate, short-term needs of the people.”




A man holds a sign showing the faces of the 2020 Beirut port blast victims as protesters and victim family members gather for a demonstration near the UNESCO palace in Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)

Like Abi-Nassif, Gabriel is of the opinion that Lebanon should ultimately lead the probe; however, he adds, international pressure in support of the probe’s independence will be critical to its success.

“Without the willpower of the Lebanese people and a government that responds to the needs of the people and the desires of the people, we won’t really get to the bottom of this,” he said.

“So, I think what is important is that the US speaks with a very strong voice, that it is a top priority that they investigate this explosion. If we are going to get anywhere with it, we need the cooperation of the Lebanese government. And they will only cooperate under the duress and pressure of the international community. Otherwise, I don’t think we will see justice in this case anytime soon.”

However, both Gabriel and Abi-Nassif are wary of international pressure being perceived as a deliberate effort to steer the probe toward Hezbollah, which is on the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Many suspect the cache of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port warehouse was somehow connected to Hezbollah’s regional activities.

“Domestic law, the domestic judiciary system, at the end of the day, is the most direct, most effective and probably the easiest way that Lebanon has to leverage and effectively reach the truth. And I am not discounting the role that international organizations have to play in this,” Abi-Nassif said.




Protesters and family members of the victims of the 2020 Beirut port blast gather ahead of a parliamentary meeting on the blast investigation. (AFP/File Photo)

“The minute that starts happening you will have voices in Lebanon, be it Hezbollah or others, crying wolf and saying that this is effectively just a plot to implicate the group, which is what we saw in the case of the Hariri STL.”

The blast investigation delay is just one of a multitude of problems that bedevil Lebanon, the other ones being political gridlock, economic meltdown, plummeting currency, soaring unemployment, the COVID-19 pandemic and fuel and electricity shortages.

Lebanon has been experiencing a socio-economic implosion since 2019. In the autumn of that year, nationwide protests erupted over rampant corruption among the political class that has ruled the country since the end of the civil war through a sectarian power-sharing system.

Public anger grew when an economic meltdown caused the nation’s currency to lose 90 percent of its value and the banks held depositors’ money hostage. Thousands of young people have fled abroad. Those who remain struggle to get by, often turning for help to a flourishing black market.

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Twitter: @rayhanania


Five civilians among 8 killed in shelling of Syria’s Idlib

Five civilians among 8 killed in shelling of Syria’s Idlib
Updated 34 sec ago

Five civilians among 8 killed in shelling of Syria’s Idlib

Five civilians among 8 killed in shelling of Syria’s Idlib
  • Rockets struck a busy area of the town of Ariha
  • Two children were among those killed
BEIRUT: Shelling by the Syrian army killed eight people, five of them civilians, Wednesday in the northwestern region of Idlib controlled by jihadist-led rebels, a war monitor reported.
Rockets struck a busy area of the town of Ariha, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that at least two children were among those killed.

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media
Updated 41 min 49 sec ago

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media
  • Images released by SANA showed a burning bus

DAMASCUS: A bomb attack on an army bus in Damascus killed at least 13 people Wednesday in the bloodiest such attack in years, the SANA state news agency reported.
“A terrorist bombing using two explosive devices targeted a passing bus” on a key bridge in the capital, the news agency said, reporting an initial casualty toll of 13 dead and three wounded.
Images released by SANA showed a burning bus and what it said was a bomb squad defusing a third device that had been planted in the same area.
Damascus had been mostly spared such violence in recent years, especially since troops and allied militia retook the last significant rebel bastion near the capital in 2018.


Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists
Updated 20 October 2021

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists
  • Civil society members stage a sit-in outside the Justice Palace to show ‘solidarity with the judiciary’

BEIRUT: Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the August 2020 port explosion, resumed investigations on Tuesday after being notified by the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation of its second decision to reject the request submitted by the defendant in the case of MP Ali Hassan Khalil.

Normal service resumed at the Justice Palace in Beirut after a long vacation. The Lebanese army guarding roads leading to the palace and Ain Remaneh, which was the arena of bloody events on Thursday, over protests to dismiss Bitar from the case. The repercussions of these events have affected the political scene, its parties and the people.

Civil society activists under the auspices of the “Lebanese Opposition Front” staged a sit-in outside the Justice Palace to show “solidarity with the Judiciary carrying out its national duties and support for Judge Bitar to face the threats.”

Speaking on behalf of the protestors, activist Dr. Ziad Abdel Samad said: “A free and sovereign state cannot exist without a legitimate authority, judiciary and justice.”

Abdel Samad urged “the defendants to appear before Judge Bitar, because the innocent normally show up and defend themselves instead of resorting to threats.”

“We have reached this low point today because of a ruling elite allied with the Hezbollah statelet, protected by illegal arms.

“They want to dismiss Judge Bitar in all arbitrary ways and threats because he has come so close to the truth after they managed to dismiss the former judge, hiding behind their immunities because they know they are involved in the crime.”

Abdel Samad claimed that “those making threats are involved in the crime.”

Regarding the Tayouneh events that took place last week, he said: “They took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully, as they claimed, but they almost got us into a new civil war as a result of the hatred and conspiracies against Lebanon.”

Lawyer May Al-Khansa, known for her affiliation with Hezbollah, submitted a report at the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation against the leader of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, Judge Bitar and “all those who appear in the investigation to be involved, accomplices or partners in crimes of terrorism and terrorism funding, undermining the state’s authority, inciting a strife, and other crimes against the law and the Lebanese Constitution.”

Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah on Monday night waged an unprecedented campaign of accusations and incitement against the Lebanese Forces party and its leader.    

Nasrallah accused them of being “the biggest threat for the presence of Christians in Lebanon” and said they were “forming alliances with Daesh.”

In a clear threat to Geagea and his party, Nasrallah bragged in his speech of having “100,000 trained fighters,” calling on Christians to “stand against this murderer.”

Nasrallah accused Bitar of “carrying out a foreign agenda targeting Hezbollah in the Beirut port crime” and of “being supported by embassies and authorities, turning him into a dictator.”

During the parliamentary session on Tuesday, no contact was made between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces. However, a handshake was spotted between the Lebanese Forces’ MP Pierre Abu Assi and the Amal Movement’s MP Hani Kobeissi.

Minister of Culture Mohammed Mortada, who represents Hezbollah, said “Hezbollah’s ministers will attend the ministerial session if Prime Minister Najib Mikati calls for one, but the justice minister and the judiciary must find a solution to the issue of lack of trust in Bitar.”

Several calls were made on Monday night between different political groups to prevent escalation and calm the situation.

Efforts are being made to reach a settlement that allows Bitar to keep his position and for defendants in the Beirut port case — who are former ministers and MPs — to be referred to the Supreme Judicial Council for prosecution.

Elsewhere, parliament dropped the proposal of a women’s quota ensuring female participation through  a minimum of 26 seats.

It passed a move to allow expats to vote for the 128 MPs and dropped the decision to allocate six additional seats representing them.

The parliament’s decision angered Gebran Bassil, who heads the Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc. Following the parliamentary session, Bassil referred to “a political game in the matter of expats’ right to vote, which we will not allow to happen.”


European court raps Turkey over presidential ‘insults’ law

European court raps Turkey over presidential ‘insults’ law
Updated 20 October 2021

European court raps Turkey over presidential ‘insults’ law

European court raps Turkey over presidential ‘insults’ law
  • Thousands have been charged and sentenced over the crime of insulting President Erdogan in 7 years

STRASBOURG, France: Europe’s top human rights court on Tuesday called on Turkey to change a law regarding insulting the president under which tens of thousands have been prosecuted, after ruling that a man’s detention under the law violated his freedom of expression.

Vedat Sorli was given a suspended 11-month jail sentence in 2017 over a caricature and a photograph of President Tayyip Erdogan that he shared on Facebook, along with satirical and critical comments.

There was no justification for Sorli’s detention and pre-trial arrest or the imposition of a criminal sanction, the European Court of Human Rights court said.

“Such a sanction, by its very nature, inevitably had a chilling effect on the willingness of the person concerned to express his or her views on matters of public interest,” it said.

The criminal proceedings against Sorli were “incompatible with freedom of expression,” the court added.

Thousands have been charged and sentenced over the crime of insulting Erdogan in the seven years since he moved from being prime minister to president.

In 2020, 31,297 investigations were launched in relation to the charge, 7,790 cases were filed and 3,325 resulted in convictions, according to Justice Ministry data. Those numbers were slightly lower than the previous year.

Since 2014, the year Erdogan became president, 160,169 investigations were launched over insulting the president, 35,507 cases were filed and there were 12,881 convictions.

In a prominent case earlier this year, a court sentenced pro-Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas to 3-1/2 years for insulting Erdogan, one of the longest sentences over the crime, according to Demirtas’ lawyer.

The court said Turkey’s law on insulting the president affords the head of state a privileged status over conveying information and opinion about them.

It said the law should be changed to ensure people have the freedom to hold opinions and impart ideas without interference by authorities in order to put an end to the violation it found in Sorli’s case.

10 diplomat summoned

Separately, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassadors of the US and nine other countries to protest a statement they issued that called for the release of imprisoned philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala.

Kavala, 64, has been kept behind bars for four years, accused of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government through the 2013 nationwide demonstrations that started at Istanbul’s Gezi Park. He has also been charged with espionage and attempting to overthrow the government in connection with a failed military coup in 2016.

The ministry said the ambassadors were told that “the impertinent statement via social media regarding a legal proceeding conducted by independent judiciary was unacceptable.” Turkey rejects the attempt to “politicize judicial proceedings and put pressure on (the) Turkish judiciary,” it continued.

“Turkey is a democratic country governed by the rule of law that respects human rights, and it was reminded that the Turkish judiciary will not be influenced by such irresponsible statements,” the ministry added.


Israel violates international law ‘because it can,’ UN Security Council told

Israel violates international law ‘because it can,’ UN Security Council told
Updated 20 October 2021

Israel violates international law ‘because it can,’ UN Security Council told

Israel violates international law ‘because it can,’ UN Security Council told
  • US/Middle East Project called for the Palestinian leadership to stop repressing ‘their own people’
  • Israel PR slammed the security council meetings on the Middle East and said the focus should be on Iran instead

NEW YORK: Israel pursues policies in violation of international law and of UN resolutions “Because it can — no tangible cost or consequence is attached,” the UN Security Council heard on Tuesday. 

Daniel Levy, president of US/Middle East Project, told council members of the need to address what he called “an accountability deficit when it comes to Israel’s action” as it is one of the core understandings that should guide the peace process forward.

“If the unlawful and peace negating politics of Israel continue to be met with impunity, there should be no expectation of positive change.

Also to be considered is “a legitimacy deficit in Palestinian politics,” Levy said.

“The Palestinian Liberation Organization must become fully representative, inclusive and by extension better able to demonstrate strategic agency and to negotiate. 

“Palestinians have a right to elect representatives to their national institutions. That requires a Palestinian leadership decision, as well as supportive, not preventive, steps by Israel and the International community.

Israeli activists of the Rabbis for Human Rights organization help Palestinian farmers harvest their olive trees in Burin village in the occupied West Bank, on Oct.19 2021. (Photo by Menahem Kahana / AFP) 

“We also cannot ignore or condone when existing Palestinian self-governing authorities on the ground with their limited mandate repress their own people.”

Palestinian politician, activist, and scholar Hanan Ashrawi told the ambassadors that everything must be viewed in the context of occupation. 

The security council’s inability to assert its authority, Ashrawi said, has allowed “this injustice to become a perpetual tragic, human modern political and legal travesty.”

She discounted talk of confidence-building between Israel and the Palestinians as “there can be very little confidence under occupation. 

“The policy of confidence-building measures is misguided because occupation brings only contempt, distrust, resentment, and resistance. The oppressed cannot be brought to trust or accept handouts from their oppressor as an alternative to their right to freedom.”

Another attempt at spreading misconception is the constant call for “balance in an unbalanced situation,” Ashrawi said. 

“The mindless refrain that Israel has a right to defend itself while the Palestinian people are denied such a right is perverse, and that the occupier’s violence is justified as self-defense while the occupied are stigmatized as a terrorist. 

“Peace is not achieved by normalizing the occupation, sidelining the Palestinian question, or rewarding it by repositioning Israel as a regional superpower. 

“Such an approach maintains in place the causes of regional instability while enabling Israel as a colonial apartheid to superimpose greater Israel on all of historic Palestine.” 

Israel’s permanent representative to the UN Gilad Erdan strongly criticized Ashrawi’s presence at the security council meeting.

“A spokesperson for Palestinian leadership was invited to represent civil society,” giving a platform to what he called “Palestinian rejectionism.”

Erdan slammed security council meetings on the Middle East for what he called disregarding “the real threat to regional and global security: Iran. 

“Iran has assembled six armies of terrorist proxies in the region and by allowing the Ayatollah regime to continue with the severe violation of their international commitments, these six terror armies will soon have an Iranian nuclear umbrella.”

Before the meeting began, Erdan told reporters in New York that such meetings have the sole aim to “bash Israel” and are a “waste of everyone’s time.

“The security council members help dig the ditch of conflict deeper,” he said.

Erdan called on council members to “stand up to Iran and demand that Palestinian leadership abandon their culture of hate. This is the only way to transform the region into a paradise of progress, prosperity, and peace.”