The Same Old Song in Lebanon – Who’s Left to Trust?

Thursday, November 19, 2020
Opinion by Jean AbiNader
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It is dispiriting to have to write AGAIN that while the people of Lebanon increasingly suffer from multiple crises, or as US Ambassador Dorothy Shea said, “They are now beyond that, they are catastrophes,” the powers-that-be continue to drive the country into failure. The most recent indication of their disregard for the welfare of the people is the handling of the investigation at the Port of Beirut.

The FBI has already submitted an inconclusive report, and details are not yet public from the French investigation. But as was noted previously, both investigations were stymied by the government which limited their scope and depth by excluding senior officials and putting the focus on the blast itself and not the security or political conditions that allowed the situation to occur in the first place. Concerns about corruption, unanswered questions about the owners of the shipment, the details of the origination and destination of the ammonium nitrate, and whether or not the entire contents were at the Port or if some had been siphoned off over time, are left unanswered.

Of course, there has been no formal follow up of the various theories as to what the combustible material was doing there in the first place: if it was feedstock for bomb-making, if there was complicity or at least willful ignorance on the part of officials from the security agencies and LAF that have facilities at the Port, if it was ignited by some external foreign or domestic party, or any of the many conspiracies that linger around the disaster story.

Two stories this week bring up the latest missteps in ongoing investigations. The first concerns the classified report from Lebanon’s elite Information Branch intelligence agency, which is a branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF). It found many state officials and security agencies responsible for the August 4th explosion that killed almost 200 people, injured more than 6,500, left more than 300,000 homeless, and caused damages reported to exceed $8 million to repair. The 350-page report was prepared by the Information Branch, military police, and investigators from the judiciary.

The report allegedly blames the Beirut Port Authority and Customs for leaving the ammonium nitrate in unsafe conditions for almost seven years. Badri Daher and Shafik Merhi, current and former heads of customs, are particularly named since they could have acted on their own to remove the chemical, a charge they are contesting. Others under scrutiny are the Cases Authority which represents the government, the directorate of land and maritime transport at the Ministry of Public Works which oversees the port, and Army Intelligence and the State Security agency, both of which have offices at the port.

While some 25 low- and mid-level administrative and security officials have been detained in connection with the explosion, current and former ministers and security chiefs were questioned as “witnesses” rather than as suspects. This was the decision of the lead investigator Judge Fadi Sawan despite the claim that many top officials – including ministers of finance, public works, and justice and Lebanon’s president and prime minister – knew of the presence of the volatile materials.

This was the same procedure followed in the Information Branch report which did not hold any current or former ministers responsible. The judge claims that they are out of his reach due to the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by top officials. Despite the deaths and damage, those who have been detained are charged with willful neglect, punishable by a maximum five-year prison sentence. To add to the confusing nature of the investigation, Judge Sawan took issue with the conclusions in the Information Branch report that assigned responsibilities for the explosion, which he considered his prerogative as lead investigator. The expectation is that the French report will also be limited to lower level officials.

It was noted by the media that Sawan was the third choice for lead investigator into the explosion. “The council of judges that picked him was majority-appointed by Lebanon’s executive branch. They rejected the justice minister’s initial proposal to have a judge known for his independence lead the investigation.”

Meanwhile, many survivors of the explosion and the families of victims have called for some form of an international investigation into the explosion, as have groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), and the Beirut Bar Association. They said an international probe is the only way to ensure accountability, given the politically exposed nature of Lebanon’s courts.

Not to be settled anytime soon

The investigation into the Central Bank is also running into obstacles, according to a Naharnet.com article. Prosecutor Ghada Aoun took the Special Investigation Commission at the Central Bank of Lebanon to task for impeding her investigation. “The Special Investigation Commission is being exploited. It has not responded to my request a year ago for a statement of account,” said Aoun in telephone remarks. She asked the SIC for a statement of account disclosing the banking secrecy of fuel importing companies and a number of persons involved in the case of the fuel import fraud. “The Commission is the most important body to detect corruption and theft of public funds but it fails to attend to its responsibilities,” she said, accusing it of “procrastination on this issue.” So, sadly, there is nothing new in Lebanon as winter approaches and poverty and despair are on the increase.

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.