How political obstruction violates Beirut blast survivors’ right to truth, justice and reparations

Special How political obstruction violates Beirut blast survivors’ right to truth, justice and reparations
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More than two years after the Beirut port blast devastated the capital, an official inquiry has ground to a halt amid political infighting and claims that corrupt officials are being protected from prosecution. (AFP)
Special How political obstruction violates Beirut blast survivors’ right to truth, justice and reparations
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This photo taken on August 12, 2022 shows a part of the middle grain silos in the port of Beirut which collapsed that week following the damage caused by the August 4, 2020 massive explosion that hit the Lebanese harbor. (AFP)
Special How political obstruction violates Beirut blast survivors’ right to truth, justice and reparations
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Relatives of victims of the 2020 Beirut port explosion clash with anti-riot police during a rally on Jan. 26, 2023 to support judge Tarek Bitar in investigating the disaster. (AFP)
Special How political obstruction violates Beirut blast survivors’ right to truth, justice and reparations
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Relatives of victims of the 2020 Beirut port explosion, push against the entrance gate of the Palace of Justice in the Lebanese capital, during a rally on Jan. 26, 2023 to support judge Tarek Bitar in investigating the disaster. (AFP)
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Updated 05 February 2023
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How political obstruction violates Beirut blast survivors’ right to truth, justice and reparations

How political obstruction violates Beirut blast survivors’ right to truth, justice and reparations
  • Judiciary and politicians have accused Tarek Bitar of insubordination for resuming his inquiry after a 13-month hiatus 
  • For survivors and the families of those killed in the explosion, Judge Bitar’s fresh effort offers a glimmer of hope

DUBAI: When a massive explosion tore through the port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, killing more than 215 people, Lebanese officials promised a swift investigation that would bring the culprits to justice within days.

Since then, the inquiry has repeatedly stalled, with its lead investigator Tarek Bitar accused of insubordination for resuming his probe into the blast and charging several top officials.

The blast, which devastated the port and surrounding districts, injuring more than 6,500 and displacing some 300,000, occurred when a large quantity of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, improperly stored in a warehouse since 2014, somehow caught fire.

Survivors, relatives of the victims and rights groups have blamed the disaster on a political class widely viewed as corrupt and inept. To date, no official has been held accountable.




Relatives of Brirut Port blast victims clash with police outside the Palace of Justice in Beirut. (AFP)

“The stuttering investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion had already demonstrated that the judiciary was a plaything in the hands of powerful figures, who could gleefully toss spanners into the legal works to hamstring procedures indefinitely,” broadcaster and political commentator Baria Alamuddin said in a recent op-ed for Arab News.

Bitar’s investigation was initially halted in December 2021 due to a ruling from the Court of Cassation. Three former cabinet ministers had filed court orders against him, while groups opposed to the inquiry, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah, accused him of bias.

Bitar was already the second judge to head the investigation following Judge Fadi Sawan’s removal. In December 2020, Sawan had charged former prime minister Hassan Diab — who had resigned in the explosion’s aftermath — and three former ministers with negligence.

However, Sawan was removed from the case after mounting political pressure, and the probe was suspended.

His successor, Bitar, also summoned Diab for questioning and asked parliament, without success, to lift the immunity of lawmakers who had served as ministers. The interior ministry also refused to execute arrest warrants, further undermining Bitar’s quest for accountability.

In October 2021, protests calling for Bitar’s removal were organized by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, a Shiite political party headed by Nabih Berri, in the civil war-scarred Beirut neighborhood of Tayouneh.




A supporter of Hezbollah and the Amal movements carries a portrait of Judge Tarek Bitar during a rally in Beirut on October 14, 2021, to demand his dismissal. (AFP)

The protests quickly turned deadly when unidentified snipers opened fire on the crowd, killing seven civilians and injuring dozens in echoes of the 1975-90 civil war period. The gunmen were suspected members of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian party.

Given these tensions and hurdles, it took many by surprise when Bitar resumed his investigation on Jan. 23 after a 13-month hiatus, charging eight new suspects, including high-level security officials and Lebanon’s top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat.

Bitar also charged former prime minister Diab, parliamentarian Ghazi Zaiter, former interior minister Nouhad Machnouk, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, former army commander Jean Kahwaji, and Major General Tony Saliba.

Oueidat responded by issuing a travel ban against Bitar, accusing him of “sedition” and of “acting without a mandate,” charging him with “rebelling against the judiciary.” He also issued an order releasing 17 suspects held in pretrial detention.




Lebanese protest in Beirut on January 28, 2023 to demand the removal and prosecution of top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat. (AFP)

“Lebanon’s judiciary has become an object of ridicule, as judges leveled retaliatory charges against each other and arbitrarily ordered the releases of detainees,” said columnist Alamuddin.

“By filing charges against senior officials, Bitar is not an out-of-control judge. Rather he is signaling that the entire complicit, corrupt leadership deserves to be brought to account.”

The executive-judiciary squabble is a further test of Lebanon’s crumbling institutions. Wracked by financial crisis and political paralysis, its currency in free fall and thousands of professionals and young people fleeing the country, expectations are low.

Michael Young, editor of Diwan, a blog of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, and author of “Ghosts of Martyrs Square,” is convinced that Bitar will not be permitted to do his work properly.

“We have to understand that there are two steps in this process,” he told Arab News. “If Bitar invites someone, it’s going to be very difficult if not impossible for him to force the people he wants to investigate to sit for their interviews.

“The police will not do anything about it because the interior ministry in its turn will not implement anything. The judicial police is controlled by the public prosecutor Oueidat, and he’s made it clear that he will not order the implementation of any decisions.

“The ability of Bitar to do his job properly is going to be, in my opinion, impossible. His investigation is technically blocked.”

Why Bitar chose to resume his inquiry now remains unclear. But for survivors and the families of those killed in the blast, his return offers a glimmer of hope.

“It was time for Judge Bitar to resume his work. The truth has to come out at some point and I think what Judge Ghassan Oueidat did by defying Judge Bitar is strengthening his will to uncover the truth,” Tatiana Hasrouty, who lost her father Ghassan Hasrouty in the blast, told Arab News.




Lebanese protesters demand during a rally in Beirut on Jan. 28. 2023 that top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat be discharged and held accountable for the 2020 port blast. (AFP)

“I believe in Judge Bitar, not as a person, but rather as the judge who is in charge of investigating this crime and is working on uncovering the truth and upholding the rule of law. He is challenging the culture of impunity we, the Lebanese, have inherited by summoning politicians and high officials.” 

Bitar, who was first appointed as lead investigator in February 2021, was seen by many Lebanese as an impartial and honest judge.

The 49-year-old Christian, who hails from the country’s north, rarely appears in public or speaks to the press, and is known to have a clean reputation and no political affiliations, a rarity in such a deeply sectarian country.

“Bitar is disconcerting for the corrupt ruling classes because he doesn’t follow their rules,” Alamuddin said in her Arab News op-ed. “He declines invitations to social occasions to avoid perceptions of influence, and doesn’t accept calls from those seeking favors.”

In a recent sermon, influential Maronite Patriarch Beshara Al-Rahi voiced his support for Bitar, urging him to “continue his work,” despite the “unacceptable” judicial and political pushback.




Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi. (AFP)

“The meetings of the judicial bodies are witnessing a lack of quorum with judges and public prosecutors defying the Higher Judicial Council and its head and refraining from attending the meetings,” he said.

“We will not allow the port crime to go without punishment, no matter how much time passes and how many rulers change.”

Al-Rahi, who is patriarch of the largest Christian community in the country, also called on Bitar to seek the help and assistance of any international authority that might aid him in uncovering the truth.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called on the UN Human Rights Council to “urgently pass a resolution to create an impartial fact-finding mission” into the port explosion.

“The Lebanese authorities have repeatedly obstructed the domestic investigation into the explosion,” they said in a joint statement.

In Lebanon’s fraught political climate, the chances of obtaining justice for the port blast’s survivors and the families of those killed appear low.

“We understood from the beginning that the political class does not want the investigation to go through to the extent that they are even willing — as we saw in the Tayouneh incident over a year ago — to risk sectarian conflict to do so,” Diwan editor Young told Arab News.

“They will not implement the rule of law. It is missing anyway in Lebanon today. They do not care about the consequences of having no rule of law.”

However, Hasrouty, who has used social media to express sorrow and anger over the loss of her father, says that regardless of what Lebanese politicians and officials do, she will not give up hope.

“The truth scares the ruling elite but this is why we will pursue it till the end,” she said. “They are scared of the power that the families and public now hold.”

 

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Iran unveils drones armed with air-to-air missiles

Iran unveils drones armed with air-to-air missiles
Updated 10 December 2023
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Iran unveils drones armed with air-to-air missiles

Iran unveils drones armed with air-to-air missiles
  • The drones have an operational range of up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles)
  • Development of Iran’s military arsenal has sparked concern among many countries, particularly the US and Israel

TEHRAN: Iran has reinforced its air defense capabilities by adding combat drones equipped with air-to-air missiles to its arsenal, state media reported on Sunday.
“Dozens of Karrar drones armed with air-to-air missiles have been added for air defense in all border areas of the country,” the official IRNA news agency said.
The drones, with an operational range of up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), were exhibited Sunday morning during a televised ceremony organized at a military academy in Tehran.
“The enemies will now have to rethink their strategies” because the Iranian forces have “become more powerful,” IRNA quoted the commander-in-chief of Iran’s army, General Abdolrahim Mousavi, as saying.
The Karrar interceptor drone, the first version of which was unveiled in 2010, has been equipped with a “Majid” thermal missile with a range of eight kilometers (five miles) “made entirely in Iran,” added the agency.
It “succeeded in its operational tests” during military exercises held in October, Mousavi said.
The development of Iran’s military arsenal has sparked concern among many countries, particularly the United States and Israel, the sworn enemies of the Islamic republic.
The latter accuse Tehran of providing fleets of drones to its allies in the Middle East, notably to Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, and to the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Iran also backs the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which has been engaged in a war with Israel since it launched deadly attacks there on October 7.
Tehran has been accused by Kyiv and its Western allies of providing Russia with drones for use in the Ukraine war, a claim Tehran denies.
Western governments, however, imposed several rounds of biting sanctions on Iran over the alleged arms sales.
Iran began manufacturing drones in the 1980s during its eight-year war with Iraq.


UN chief says he will not give up appeals for ceasefire in Gaza

UN chief says he will not give up appeals for ceasefire in Gaza
Updated 10 December 2023
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UN chief says he will not give up appeals for ceasefire in Gaza

UN chief says he will not give up appeals for ceasefire in Gaza
  • Qatar will continue to pressure Israel and Hamas for a truce despite “narrowing” chances
  • UNRWA chief says immediate ceasefire needed to end ‘hell on earth’ in Gaza

DOHA: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Sunday he will not give up appealing for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, adding that the war undermined the credibility and authority of the Security Council.
Gueterres was speaking at the Doha Forum conference as Washington vetoed on Friday a proposed UN Security Council demand for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the war between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas.
“I urged the Security Council to press to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and I reiterated my appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared,” Guterres said.
“Regrettably, the Security Council failed to do it, but that does not make it less necessary,” he said.
“I will not give up,” Guterres added.
Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani told the gathering that Doha will continue to pressure Israel and Hamas for a truce despite “narrowing” chances.
Qatar, where several political leaders of Hamas are based, has been leading negotiations between the group and Israel.
Sheikh Mohammed said hostages were released from Gaza because of negotiations and not because of Israel’s military actions.
The head of UNRWA, the UN aid agency for Palestinians, said the dehumanization of Palestinians has allowed the international community to tolerate Israel’s continued attacks on Gaza.
“There is no doubt that a humanitarian ceasefire is needed if we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza,” UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said.
The United States and Israel oppose a ceasefire because they believe it would only benefit Hamas. Washington instead supports pauses in fighting to protect civilians and allow the release of hostages taken by Hamas in a deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
Guterres also urged leaders at the COP28 climate conference to agree on deep cuts to emissions and stop global warming exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
He said that despite pledges, emissions are at a record high and fossil fuels are the major cause.
“I urge leaders at COP28 in Dubai to agree on deep cuts to emissions, in line with the 1.5-degree limit,” Guterres said adding that fossil fuel companies and their backers should use their enormous resources to lead the renewables revolution.


Polls open in Egypt presidential elections

Polls open in Egypt presidential elections
Updated 10 December 2023
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Polls open in Egypt presidential elections

Polls open in Egypt presidential elections

CAIRO: Polls opened on Sunday in Egypt's presidential election in which Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is set to secure six more years in power.
Voting is spread over three days and runs from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. (0700-1900 GMT), with results due to be announced on Dec. 18.
Approximately 67 million Egyptians are eligible to vote, according to the election authority, out of a total population of 104 million.


Israel presses on with its Gaza offensive after US veto derails Security Council efforts to halt war

Israel presses on with its Gaza offensive after US veto derails Security Council efforts to halt war
Updated 10 December 2023
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Israel presses on with its Gaza offensive after US veto derails Security Council efforts to halt war

Israel presses on with its Gaza offensive after US veto derails Security Council efforts to halt war
  • The State Department approves the sale of tank ammunition to Israel in a deal that bypasses Congress
  • In Gaza, residents reported airstrikes and shelling, including in southern city of Rafah near Egyptian border

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip: Israel’s military pushed ahead with its punishing air and ground offensive in Gaza on Saturday, bolstered by a US veto derailing UN Security Council efforts to end the war and word that an emergency sale of $106 million worth of tank ammunition had been approved by Washington.
Unable to leave Gaza, a territory 25 miles (40 kilometers) long by about 7 miles (11 kilometers) wide, more than 2 million Palestinians faced more bombardment Saturday, even in areas that Israel had described as safe zones.
The sale of nearly 14,000 rounds of tank ammunition was announced a day after the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, a measure that had wide international support. The US said Secretary of State Antony Blinken determined that “an emergency exists” in the national interest requiring the immediate sale, meaning it bypasses congressional review. Such a determination is rare.
A day after Israel confirmed it was rounding up Palestinian men for interrogation, some men told The Associated Press they had been treated badly, providing the first accounts of the conditions from the detentions.
Ahmad Nimr Salman showed his marked and swollen hands from zip ties. “They used to ask us, ‘Are you with Hamas?’ We say ‘no,’ then they would slap us or kick us,” he said. The Israeli military had no immediate comment when asked about the alleged abuse.
With the war in its third month, the Palestinian death toll in Gaza has surpassed 17,700, the majority women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-controlled territory. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.
Two hospitals in central and southern Gaza received the bodies of 133 people from Israeli bombings over the past 24 hours, the Health Ministry said midday Saturday.
Israel holds the Hamas militants responsible for civilian casualties, accusing them of using civilians as human shields, and says it has made considerable efforts with evacuation orders to get civilians out of harm’s way. It says 97 Israeli soldiers have died in the ground offensive after Hamas raided southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking about 240 hostages.
Hamas said Saturday that it continued its rocket fire into Israel.
In Gaza, residents reported airstrikes and shelling, including in the southern city of Rafah near the Egyptian border — one area where the Israeli army had told civilians to go. In a colorful classroom there, knee-high children’s tables were strewn with rubble.
“We now live in the Gaza Strip and are governed by the American law of the jungle. America has killed human rights,” said Rafah resident Abu Yasser Al-Khatib.
In northern Gaza, Israel has been trying to secure the military’s hold, despite heavy resistance from Hamas. The military said that it found weapons inside a school in Shujaiyah, a densely populated neighborhood of Gaza City, and that, in a separate incident, militants shot at troops from a UN-run school in the northern town of Beit Hanoun.
More than 2,500 Palestinians have been killed since the Dec. 1 collapse of a weeklong truce, about two-thirds of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.
The truce saw hostages and Palestinian prisoners released, but Israel says 137 hostages remain in Gaza.
On Saturday, a kibbutz that came under attack on Oct. 7 said 25-year-old hostage Sahar Baruch had died in captivity. His captors said Baruch was killed during a failed rescue mission by Israeli forces Friday. The Israeli military said Hamas killed him.
With no new cease-fire in sight and humanitarian aid reaching little of Gaza, residents reported severe food shortages. Nine of 10 people in northern Gaza reported spending at least one full day and night without food, according to a World Food Program assessment during the truce. Two of three people in the south said the same. The WFP called the situation “alarming.”
“I am very hungry,” said Mustafa Al-Najjar, sheltering in a UN-run school in the devastated Jabaliya refugee camp in the north. “We are living on canned food and biscuits and this is not sufficient.”
While adults can cope, “it’s extremely difficult and painful when you see your young son or daughter crying because they are hungry,” he said.
Israelis who had been taken hostage also saw the food situation deteriorate, the recently freed Adina Moshe told a rally of thousands of people in Tel Aviv seeking the rapid return of all. “We ended up eating only rice,” said Moshe, who was held for 49 days.
The rally speakers accused Israel’s government of not doing enough to bring loved ones home. “How can I sleep at night? How can I protect my daughter?” asked Eli Albag, the father of 18-year-old hostage Liri Albag.
On Saturday, 100 trucks carrying unspecified aid entered Gaza through the Rafah crossing with Egypt, said Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority. That is still well below the daily average before the war.
Despite growing international pressure, President Joe Biden’s administration remains opposed to an open-ended cease-fire, arguing it would enable Hamas to continue posing a threat to Israel.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has argued that “a cease-fire is handing a prize to Hamas.”
Blinken continued to speak with counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Turkiye and elsewhere amid open criticism of the US stance.
“From now on, humanity won’t think the USA. supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech.
Protesters at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai called for a cease-fire, despite restrictions on demonstrations.
Amid concerns about a wider conflict, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen threatened to prevent any ship heading to Israeli ports from passing through the Red Sea and Arabian Sea until food and medicine can enter Gaza freely. Spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree said in a speech that all ships heading to Israel, no matter their nationality, will be a target.
In southern Gaza, thousands were on the run after what residents called a night of heavy gunfire and shelling.
Israel has designated a narrow patch of barren southern coastline, Muwasi, as a safe zone. But Palestinians described desperately overcrowded conditions with scant shelter and no toilets. They faced an overnight temperature of around 52 degrees (11 degrees Celsius).
“I am sleeping on the sand. It’s freezing,” said Soad Qarmoot, who described herself as a cancer patient forced to leave her home in the northern town of Beit Lahiya.
As she spoke, her children huddled around a fire.


French frigate downs drones over Red Sea: military

French frigate downs drones over Red Sea: military
Updated 10 December 2023
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French frigate downs drones over Red Sea: military

French frigate downs drones over Red Sea: military
  • Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia threatened to attack vessels heading to Israeli ports unless food and medicine were allowed into Gaza

PARIS: A French frigate shot down two drones in the Red Sea that were heading toward it from the coast of Yemen, the French military said on Sunday.
“The interception and destruction of these two identified threats” were carried out late Saturday by the frigate Languedoc, which operates in the Red Sea, the general staff said in a press release.
The interceptions happened at 2030 GMT and 2230 GMT, it added, and were 110 km (68 miles) from the Yemeni coast.
Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia on Saturday threatened to attack any vessels heading to Israeli ports unless food and medicine were allowed into the besieged Gaza Strip.
The latest warning comes amid heightened tensions in the Red Sea and surrounding waters following a series of maritime attacks by Houthi militia since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7.
In a statement posted on social media, the Houthis said they “will prevent the passage of ships heading to the Zionist entity” if humanitarian aid is not allowed into Hamas-ruled Gaza.
The Houthis have recently attacked ships they claim have direct links to Israel, but their latest threat expands the scope of their targets.
An American destroyer shot down three drones last week while providing assistance to commercial ships in the Red Sea targeted by attacks from Yemen, according to Washington, which denounced “a direct threat” to maritime security.