Beirut Port Blast: Why a Domestic Investigation Won’t Bring Justice

Friday, July 30, 2021
Opinion by Cassia King

It’s been almost one year since 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the Port of Beirut caught fire and caused one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. The blast cost the lives of 217 people, injured more than 6,000, and forcibly displaced over 300,000.

The chemicals were stored haphazardly in the capital’s port for six years and Lebanon officials knew about it. This government malfeasance cost up to $4.6 billion in damages with estimates of losses in financial flows as high as $3.5 billion according to the World Bank. It destroyed the port’s wheat silos, surrounding businesses, residential neighborhoods, and damaged major hospitals and structures in the area. One year later, the culprits have yet to be identified and held accountable. Why?

An inherently flawed domestic investigation

Even a cursory review of Lebanon’s judicial system reveals a vulnerable structure susceptible to political interference. Take for example the State Council Bureau, which is meant to act as a safeguard for judicial independence. Its seven judges are essentially handpicked by the executive branch. And though Bureau members are not supposed to be selected by sectarian affiliation, legal advocates report selections are often based on quota-sharing deals among sectarian leaders. Further, Bureau members are all judges, whereas international standards dictate a diverse membership that should include legislators, lawyers, and academics.

But this reflects just one of the long-term systemic issues that needs reform to adequately administer justice in Lebanon. For the port blast investigation, the government assigned the case to the Judicial Council, which is an exceptional court, and legal advocates in Lebanon have identified systemic flaws within this process as well. First, there is no appeals process through this court, so any decisions made by the investigating judge cannot be appealed. Further, and following the theme of Lebanon’s judiciary appointments discussed above, the Judicial Council does not maintain judiciary independence from the executive branch. Its five members are appointed by the government following the recommendations of the Minister of Justice with approval by the Supreme Judicial Council (whose eight out of ten members are also appointed by the executive branch).

Beyond these systemic flaws, Judge Fadi Sawan and now Judge Tarek Bitar have faced a host of challenges in their efforts to lead the blast investigation. Judge Sawan, who was originally assigned to lead the investigation last year, was removed from the case after two former ministers that Sawan had previously charged filed a complaint alleging the judge could not maintain neutrality. The Court of Cassation dismissed him and concurred that Sawan could not be impartial because his own home was damaged in the blast.

And since his appointment following Sawan’s removal, Judge Tarek Bitar has faced his own barriers. When earlier this month Bitar requested permission to investigate MPs and high-level security officials, Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi denied the request. Lebanon’s parliament is currently stalled on a decision on whether to lift the immunities given to officials. And recently, a parliamentary motion was initiated that would open a parallel investigation to Judge Bitar’s. It called for Lebanese officials to be tried by the Supreme Council instead of through the Judicial Council which would mean facing the eight out of ten politically appointed judges mentioned previously. Over 50 MPs initially signed the motion, but pressure from legal activists and the media resulted in dozens of MPs withdrawing their support, leaving only 24 signees. Sixty-one signatures are needed for it to pass.

So when assessing the domestic investigation’s validity, the question to ask is not really if Bitar is a fair judge, but whether or not he is able to conduct a fair investigation within the constraints of the judicial system and pressure from Lebanon’s political elite.

Are there other options?

In the short-term, Lebanon needs an international investigation to take over the Beirut Port blast case. Lebanese citizens, local civil society groups, and international NGOs alike have been calling for this. A coalition of over 50 Lebanese and international organizations wrote to the UN Human Rights Council requesting an independent investigative mission that would “identify human rights violations arising from the Lebanese state’s failure to protect the right to life.”

Victims and families of victims deserve justice and accountability. The culprits of these crimes that cost Lebanese lives and billions of dollars need to be held accountable. If an international investigation is refused, then immunities given to Lebanese authorities must be lifted to give Bitar a chance at conducting a full domestic investigation, though, as noted, political interference will likely infect the process.

In the long-term, Lebanon’s judiciary needs systemic reform to ensure its independence. Some of these changes are already written into law but have not been implemented. Taking Lebanon’s judiciary out of the hands of Lebanon’s executive branch is a necessary step to diminish the impact of sectarian power plays that have corrupted and diminished its credibility.

Cassia King is a master’s student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in Conflict Management. She is ATFL’s media coordinator and summer research associate.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.