Lebanon elite united against Beirut port blast probe seen as survival threat

Lebanon elite united against Beirut port blast probe seen as survival threat
It emerged after the Beirut port blast that officials had known that hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had for years been left to linger in a warehouse near residential neighborhoods. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 19 October 2021

Lebanon elite united against Beirut port blast probe seen as survival threat

Lebanon elite united against Beirut port blast probe seen as survival threat
  • Explosion of a huge stockpile of poorly stored fertilizer on the dockside on August 4, 2020 killed more than 210 people
  • ‘Lebanon’s ruling class may be political opponents but they are united in profiteering from the system’

BEIRUT: They may often squabble but Lebanon’s political parties seem united in rejecting an investigation into Beirut’s massive port explosion that they fear could threaten their survival, analysts say.
The explosion of a huge stockpile of poorly stored fertilizer on the dockside on August 4, 2020 killed more than 210 people, wounded thousands and ravaged half the capital.
In the aftermath of mass protests in late 2019 demanding the ouster of the traditional ruling class, many said the disaster was just the latest example of official incompetence and corruption.
But months into a domestic investigation, no one has been held accountable.
Politicians have repeatedly obstructed the work of judge Tarek Bitar by refusing to show up for questioning, filing legal complaints against him or calling for his dismissal, which last week sparked deadly violence in the heart of Beirut.
Analyst Lina Khatib said hopes were fading of holding those responsible for the port blast accountable.
“The ruling class in Lebanon is in agreement about wanting the port probe to be abandoned and they will use all available means to derail it,” said Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank.
The country’s powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah has spearheaded a campaign to remove Bitar, accusing him of political bias.
The debate over his future, which comes after the previous investigator was removed in February, has already triggered the postponement of one cabinet meeting despite the urgency of addressing Lebanon’s acute economic crisis.
Nadim Houry, executive director at the Arab Reform Initiative, said that the whole ruling class felt under threat in what he described as “an essential battle in Lebanon for rule of law.”
“A section of society has decided that they want to go all the way and ask for truth,” but they face “a political class that is willing to use threats, use violence, use even launching into another civil war to prevent that quest for truth from leading to a result,” he said.
It emerged after the port blast that officials had known that hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had for years been left to linger in a warehouse near residential neighborhoods.
Families of the victims see in Bitar the only hope for justice in a country where impunity has long been the norm.
After the 1975 to 1990 civil war, Lebanon issued a broad amnesty that benefited the country’s warlords, allowing many of them to become political leaders.
“Regardless of what Bitar finds, it’s the idea itself that any of them can somehow be held accountable that they are resisting,” Houry said.
Any success in the blast probe would set a precedent and unravel a “impunity regime” under which each party agrees not to pursue the other for its crimes, as long as it is not targeted itself.
Tensions came to a boil last week after a rally against Bitar organized by Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal descended into violence that killed seven of their supporters.
The sound of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades trapped residents indoors for hours, reviving memories of the civil war.
Hezbollah accused snipers of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, of causing the bloodshed, but the latter has denied this.
The army, meanwhile, is investigating a video circulated on social media that appears to show a soldier shooting at protesters.
“Hezbollah is increasingly acting as the praetorian guard of the regime that has come into place since the 1990s,” Houry said.
The Iran-backed movement, the only one not to have disarmed after the civil war, is at least partly blacklisted by most Western governments but holds seats in parliament.
While political parties have publicly supported an investigation, analysts say they ultimately wish to protect their own interests.
“Lebanon’s ruling class may be political opponents but they are united in profiteering from the system... and they therefore oppose any steps to reform it or to instil accountability within it,” Khatib said.
A spokesman for the families of blast victims quit on Saturday, after many feared he had been intimidated into toeing the Hezbollah line and calling for Bitar to step down.
Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his brother in the explosion, lives in a Shiite-majority neighborhood.
The following day, many refrained from taking part in a protest to mark the second anniversary of the now-defunct 2019 protest movement, fearing further violence.
“Ultimately, the ruling class want to push the Lebanese to conclude that the price of accountability is too high,” Khatib said.


Opposition group estimates 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in Iran

Opposition group estimates 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in Iran
Updated 11 sec ago

Opposition group estimates 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in Iran

Opposition group estimates 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in Iran
  • People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran claim 499,800 have died in country from COVID-19
  • Official Iranian figures show 132,274 virus-related deaths, still highest in region

LONDON: An Iranian opposition group operating within and outside the Islamic republic has released figures claiming nearly half-a-million people have died from COVID-19 in the country.

According to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, more than 499,800 virus-related deaths had occurred in Iran, almost four times the latest official toll of 132,274.

In the worst-hit province, Tehran, the PMOI said 116,735 people had lost their lives to COVID-19.

Even by official figures, Iran is the worst-hit country in the Middle East, with deaths and hospitalizations far exceeding those of its neighbors. It was also the first country in the region where the virus was detected.

Official sources have reported that Iran was currently experiencing a fifth wave of COVID-19, with a rising number of cases being linked to the highly transmissible omicron variant.

On Monday, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency, the secretary of Iran’s epidemiologist committee said: “If we reimpose all the restrictions today, and if people fully abide by these regulations, the number of our patients will still reach five figures. More than 50 percent of the coronavirus cases are of omicron.”

And the spokesman for Isfahan University of Medical Sciences said: “Omicron has become the main variant in (Isfahan) province. During the past week the number of confirmed positive coronavirus cases has reached more than 1,500 cases.”

Also on Monday, ISNA reported that the dean of Kerman University of Medical Sciences said: “Expect omicron to flare up in the not-so-distant future. The number of positive coronavirus cases has increased from 30 to 50 percent. Therefore, the alarm bell has sounded.”

Iran’s COVID-19 outbreak has been blamed in some quarters on regime incompetence and Tehran prioritizing ideology over effective response.

Last year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned the import of British and American-made vaccines, significantly hindering the country’s vaccination drive and, critics have said, causing more deaths.

In August, Dr. Mohammed-Reza Zafarghandi, chairman of Iran’s non-governmental licensing and regulatory Medical Council, criticized the vaccine ban, and said: “Mortality has significantly dropped in countries where they vaccinated the population without any limits and setting (political) borders.

“Will those who said vaccine imports should be restricted be accountable today?”


Iran nuclear talks approaching dangerous impasse — UK’s Truss

Iran nuclear talks approaching dangerous impasse — UK’s Truss
Updated 3 min 50 sec ago

Iran nuclear talks approaching dangerous impasse — UK’s Truss

Iran nuclear talks approaching dangerous impasse — UK’s Truss
  • Truss also held a phone call with the US secretary of state to discuss Iran nuclear talks in Vienna

LONDON: Talks to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Western powers and Iran are approaching a dangerous impasse, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said on Tuesday.
“This negotiation is urgent and progress has not been fast enough. We continue to work in close partnership with our allies but the negotiations are reaching a dangerous impasse,” Truss told parliament.
“Iran must now choose whether it wants to conclude a deal or be responsible for the collapse of the JCPOA (nuclear deal). And if the JCPOA collapses, all options are on the table.” 
Truss also held a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss how to reach a successful conclusion on talks with Iran on mutual return to implementation of the nuclear deal, the US State Department said.
Her comments come a day after a senior member of the US team negotiating with Iran has left the role amid a report of differences of opinion on the way forward, as the urgency to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal intensifies.
A State Department official confirmed on Monday that Richard Nephew, US Deputy Special Envoy for Iran, is no longer on the negotiating team, but was still a State Department employee. The official did not give a reason for the change but said personnel moves were ‘very common’ a year into an administration.
The Wall Street Journal earlier reported that Nephew left after differences of opinion within the US negotiating team on Iran. The paper said he had advocated a tougher posture in the current negotiations.
Iran for the first time Monday said it was open to direct nuclear negotiations with the United States, which declared itself ready to hold talks “urgently” — in a possible turning point in efforts to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord.
Tehran has been engaged since last year in talks with the five other world powers still part of the agreement, which offered sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
After unilaterally withdrawing in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump, Washington has been taking part indirectly in the Vienna negotiations, which seek to bring the United States back into the nuclear accord and ensure Iran returns to its commitments.
But Washington has said on multiple occasions it would prefer to hold direct talks, and on Monday Iran’s foreign minister said his country would consider doing so if it proved the key to a “good agreement” to salvage the floundering deal.
“If during the negotiation process we get to a point that reaching a good agreement with solid guarantees requires a level of talks with the US, we will not ignore that in our work schedule,” said Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
(With Reuters and AFP)


Egyptian, Algerian presidents hold talks in Cairo

A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meeting with his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune on January 24, 2022 in the capital Cairo. (AFP)
A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meeting with his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune on January 24, 2022 in the capital Cairo. (AFP)
Updated 25 January 2022

Egyptian, Algerian presidents hold talks in Cairo

A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meeting with his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune on January 24, 2022 in the capital Cairo. (AFP)
  • Tebboune hails ‘complete consensus of visions, points of view’
  • El-Sisi cites agreement on Libya, water security, Palestinian state

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune on Tuesday expressed their agreement on the need to hold simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya.

During a joint press conference in Cairo, Tebboune said his talks with El-Sisi represented “a complete consensus of visions and points of view.”

El-Sisi said the talks included the issue of “water security,” adding that “our visions coincided with the need to reach a comprehensive agreement on the Renaissance Dam” in Ethiopia, which threatens to reduce Egypt’s and Sudan’s shares of Nile water.

El-Sisi said he and Tebboune also agreed on the need for foreign fighters to leave Libya “in a way that achieves security” for the country and its people.

Egypt’s president added that they held “intensive and constructive discussions that dealt with international and regional issues,” and “reflected the common will to strengthen all frameworks of cooperation between the two countries … taking into account confronting and rejecting foreign interference in the region.”

He said they also agreed on the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state.

El-Sisi wished Algeria success in its presidency of the upcoming Arab Summit.

 


Lebanese cleric seeks implementation of Taif Agreement

Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi. (AFP)
Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi. (AFP)
Updated 25 January 2022

Lebanese cleric seeks implementation of Taif Agreement

Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi. (AFP)
  • Discontent abounds following Hariri decision to suspend involvement in politics

BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi has reiterated the necessity of implementing the Taif Agreement, international resolutions and the removal of illegal weapons from Lebanon.

The Taif Agreement, signed in 1989, aimed to provide "the basis for the end of the civil war and the return to political normality in Lebanon."

Al-Rahi’s points are the demands mentioned in a paper handed last week to Lebanese authorities by Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nasser Al-Sabah as the conditions for rebuilding trust between the Gulf states and Lebanon, after Saudi Arabia and others severed diplomatic and economic relations with Beirut.

Al-Rahi reiterated his demand for “holding an international conference, announcing Lebanon’s neutrality and finding a solution to the problem of Syrian and Palestinian refugees.”

He said he was surprised by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s decision to suspend his involvement in political activities and his call to the Future Movement to neither contest the upcoming parliamentary elections nor nominate anyone to run on its behalf.

He told a delegation of the Union of Editors: “I was surprised by the decision and did not expect it, as Hariri is moderate and I hope it does not lead to any crack in the Lebanese structure.”

Earlier, Hariri said: “There is no room for any positive opportunity for Lebanon in light of Iranian influence, international confusion, national division, the rise of sectarian tensions and the deterioration of the state.”

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said he was “saddened by Hariri’s decision,” and the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt said he felt “orphaned.”

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said: “Despite our differences with Saad Hariri on political vision and power-sharing, I cannot but personally sympathize with him,” while stressing his “respect and appreciation for friends and brothers in the Future Movement.”

He said he would continue to coordinate with the Sunni community and other sects that believe in the Lebanese cause until Lebanon succeeds as a sovereign and independent state not controlled by Iran.

Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian said: “Hariri’s step is regrettable and painful after all his efforts in his national missions.”

He expressed “concern over the developments on the Lebanese scene” and affirmed that “Lebanon’s relations with its Arab brothers, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council states and primarily Saudi Arabia, must be at the highest level."

He said the Lebanese people should be convinced that no group should harm these “brotherly relations,” in order to protect Lebanese and Arab interests.

In a joint statement, several economic bodies called on “political powers to assume their national responsibilities and take steps to stop the collapse and disintegration of the state, in order to restore the work of the state and its legitimate institutions, and to consolidate Lebanon’s stability, role and identity.”


Court told former Irish soldier was prepared to die for Daesh

Court told former Irish soldier was prepared to die for Daesh
Updated 25 January 2022

Court told former Irish soldier was prepared to die for Daesh

Court told former Irish soldier was prepared to die for Daesh
  • Lisa Smith, 39, accused of encouraging husband to take sniper’s course
  • Her trial for terror offenses began Tuesday in Dublin

LONDON: A woman accused of joining Daesh was prepared to die a martyr, a Dublin court has been told.

Lisa Smith, 39, from Dundalk, County Louth, has pleaded not guilty to being a member of a terrorist organization between October 2015 and December 2019.

Her case opened on Tuesday in a special criminal court with prosecutor Sean Gillane telling the hearing that the former Irish Defense Forces soldier had “enveloped” herself in the “black flag of Islamic State (Daesh).”

He said Smith “tried to access Islamic State-controlled territory and sought out the means in which this could be done.”

The court heard that she had traveled to Syria in 2015 and had married and had a child while there. She later fled to a refugee camp as the group’s territory collapsed and was arrested upon her repatriation to Ireland.

It was also claimed in court that her husband, Sajid Aslam, a Daesh fighter said to have taken border patrol duties for the group, “had done a sniper’s course on her advice,” and that Smith had been involved with various Facebook and Telegram groups. In one discussion about Daesh’s execution of five men by drowning in a cage, the prosecution claimed that in reply Smith said: “OK, now I understand why they were drowned. I didn’t know the other half of the story.”

Smith has also pleaded not guilty to financing Daesh by sending 800 euros ($902) by Western Union money transfer to a named person in 2015.

She has not been accused of using arms while in Syria.

Gillane noted that her membership of Daesh could be adduced by her association, state of mind, and allegiance to the group’s leadership.

Smith converted to Islam in 2011 and left the Irish military after she was refused permission to wear a hijab while working.

Her trial is expected to last up to 12 weeks.