Rule of Law – Another Fatality of Lebanon’s Port Explosion

Thursday, October 14, 2021
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

The twists and turns plaguing the investigations into the Beirut Port blast are hardly the stuff of a great mystery novel; this is business as usual in Lebanon. Faced with the upcoming March elections, moved forward from May to undercut opposition readiness to contest vulnerable seats, the ruling oligarchy has little interest in providing ammunition to its opponents.

The October 14 clashes in Beirut, initially resulting in 6 dead and 30 wounded are just the latest sign that some groups in Lebanon have entirely discounted the role of the government in establishing order over the country. This time the issue is the opposition of the Hezbollah/Amal/Free Patriotic Movement coalition to the judge investigating the explosions calling several of its members to testify.

Until now, attempts at an independent investigation have been neutralized by the government. The American FBI halted its investigation in October 2020, after declaring that the amount of detonated ammonium nitrate material was equivalent to 552 tons, even though the original shipment was some 2740 tons. That discrepancy has never been addressed. The Bureau’s report was handed over to a Lebanese judge and has yet to be released – even partially – to the public.

Three months after the blast, a German firm was given a contract to clean up the port area without any inference of the need to protect the site for a continued investigation. Ten months after the explosion, in May 2021, the French presented their report on the blast, consigning the continuation of the investigation to the Lebanese authorities.

Which brings us to the subject of the revolving judges. Judge Fadi Sawan, the first judge appointed to the investigation, tried to call several members of Parliament and ex-ministers to testify. He was removed following a legal complaint submitted by the very same members who questioned his impartiality. As the Washington Post noted, “After trying to interrogate powerful former ministers and political leaders, Sawan was removed and replaced by Bitar. But he also struggled to break through Lebanon’s culture of corruption and political influence that prevented the law from holding anyone of consequence accountable.”

The Reuters coverage of the demonstrations pointed out that “Though none of its members have been targeted by the probe, Hezbollah has accused Bitar of conducting a politicized probe only focused on certain people. These include some of its closest allies, among them senior figures in the Shi’ite Amal Movement who occupied ministerial posts.”

Judge Tarek Bitar’s efforts have been similarly thwarted by complaints arguing, among other things, that he was biased because his house had been damaged in the blast. Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused Bitar of using “the blood of the victims to serve political interests,” and effectively called for his replacement. Fortunately, the Court of Cassation, currently the highest court in the land, rejected the argument and said that his special investigation was not under its jurisdiction.

On the question of immunity for those called to testify, which includes former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, newly installed Prime Minister Najib Mikati defended Judge Bitar’s right to pursue an investigation but added the caveat that the Constitution called for senior officials to be tried in a special court. This potential loophole raises another question of whether or not this Constitutional rule applies to former senior officials as well.

The twisting in the wind of an impartial and independent investigation into the Beirut Port blast defies rule of law principles as well as prospects of justice for those who lost loved ones in the blast, were injured, or suffered property loss. The US State Department and others clearly condemned threats against the judiciary and again called for a full investigation.

The international community has called for an independent investigation on numerous occasions, even tying it to Lebanon’s access to development funds. Whether or not the IMF and others stay the course and leverage the implementation of an investigation as part of the economic recovery plan has yet to be seen as Lebanon descends even further into desperate straits.

If Lebanon’s leaders continue to defy even the semblance of respect for the notion of a clean investigation, they will lose any remaining trust with the Lebanese people and the bloodshed of October 14 will not likely be an isolated incident. Without strong intervention by the government and the security services, Lebanon will remain in a moral and kinetic crossfire, and its credibility and integrity as an independent state will continue to diminish.

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.