Beirut port explosion investigation remains shackled two years on
In bankrupt Lebanon — a country where people struggle to buy bread and find it nearly impossible to withdraw their savings; a place that has long lived with a justice deficiency — all it takes is one disbelieving look to see how low a country needs to go before its ruling elites wake up and try to find solutions to the mounting challenges faced by the state and its citizens. Or, simply, they are not interested.
Thursday marks two years since the country suffered the explosion that destroyed the port and parts of the city of Beirut. It is considered to be one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions the world has ever seen, killing more than 200 people and injuring 6,000. As a reminder of the tragedy, parts of the semi-destroyed grain silos collapsed on Sunday, engulfing the Lebanese capital in yet another cloud of dust. This happened after a fire was apparently ignited in the fermenting grain due to the excruciating summer heat, with the authorities having given up trying to put out the blaze after weeks of unsuccessful attempts.
Like everything else in Lebanon, the investigation launched to understand what happened with the explosion and who was responsible for the huge ammonium nitrate stock and its storage has been blocked by the country’s de facto political powers. From the beginning, many believed it was an Israeli strike on some Hezbollah weapons dump, using a key installation like the port as a cover. Others believed the ammonium nitrate was stored by unknown entities for explosive manufacturing purposes, maybe on behalf of a third party outside Lebanon. Some even blame the Lebanese government’s years-long corruption and mismanagement for the tragedy, but the lock on power of the current ruling elite has ensured the few so-called suspects are untouchable.
The blast, which caused a pressure wave that shattered everything in its path, left many people determined to seek justice. But accountability is hard to come by in Lebanon, with the political elite closing ranks and thwarting all investigation efforts by a quasi-independent judiciary.
An initial investigation found that the ammonium nitrate had been shipped to Lebanon in 2013 and stored improperly at a port warehouse in plain sight of all official and nonofficial security apparatuses active in the country.
However, political interference disrupted the investigation and the second investigating judge Tarek Bitar’s efforts to charge former senior government and security officials with intentional killing and negligence was blocked pending a Court of Cassation ruling after three former Cabinet ministers filed legal challenges. But the Court of Cassation cannot rule until a number of vacancies are filled. These appointments, endorsed by the justice minister, are still awaiting the approval of the finance minister, who is close to parliament speaker and Hezbollah ally Nabih Berri.
Lebanon is no stranger to administrative manipulation, interference, direct or indirect intimidation and even the assassination of those straying away from the narrative and/or the guidelines filtered through the system by the de facto ruling class to serve their agendas. Its history is, unfortunately, littered with assassinations and bombings.
Since 2005 — and apart from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which against all odds ruled to indict members of Hezbollah for the assassination of the late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a verdict rejected by the pro-Iranian group — many instances of political violence sit unresolved and gathering dust on the shelves of the Lebanese justice system.
Dozens have been assassinated, including lawmakers, journalists, activists and members of the security services. One example is the 2008 car bomb that killed Wissam Eid, a police intelligence officer investigating the Hariri assassination. His boss, Wissam Al-Hassan, was also killed in a car bomb in 2012, possibly as a result of his arrest of a pro-Syrian former Lebanese minister who was transporting bombs from Syria in the boot of his car.
The list is long, but to some extent everyone in Lebanon knows very well the elephant in the room responsible for these acts of violence.
The lack of justice compounds the pain of the relatives of the Beirut port blast victims, who, like most Lebanese, feel let down and abandoned not only by the government and the legal system, but also by public apathy, as the Lebanese have turned their attention to dealing with the fallout from the unprecedented economic crisis that has hit the country.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, there were large protests and sit-ins demanding justice, but public fervor quickly waned as people were absorbed by their day-to-day survival efforts. Other events were also seen as tools to curtail the investigation, including the deadly gun battles that erupted in central Beirut last year between Hezbollah supporters protesting against Bitar and some Christian factions. These raised fears that pressing on with the investigation would risk pushing Lebanon back into another round of sectarian violence, if not war.
The grain silos at Beirut port were a sign of Lebanon’s progress and development when they were built, but they are now likely to bear witness, like many other landmarks in Beirut, to the further erosion of the state and the failure of its justice system to hold to account those committing the most heinous of crimes against this small country and its people.
The lock on power of the current ruling elite has ensured the few so-called suspects are untouchable.
At night in Beirut, orange flames can still be seen at the base of the northern silos, glowing eerily in the darkness and reminding everyone that the investigation that was supposed to answer key questions about who owned the ammonium nitrate, how it entered the port, who authorized its storage and how the explosion was triggered has been hampered.
The Beirut port explosion inquiry seems likely to join Lebanon’s list of open investigations that have been muzzled by the same forces that have long disrupted the country’s attempts to free its sovereignty from the shackles of conflictive, disruptive and often destructive regional geostrategic projects that have been pushed on it and its people.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.