02/06/2021, 16.40
LEBANON
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Beirut port explosions: 1,400 cases filed to establish the truth

by Fady Noun

Human Rights Watch is critical of the investigation, which appears to have run aground on legal technicalities. Victims’ families demand justice and slam the “law of silence” that “cloaks this tragedy”. The Bar Association is trying to jumpstart the investigation. The prosecutor seeking the truth needs all the help he can get.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – In a recent statement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticised Lebanon’s justice system for failing to determine what caused the Beirut port tragedy and who was responsible for it, six months after the 4 August 2020 blasts.

The ongoing local enquiry is going nowhere and some procedural irregularities might compromise every attempt to shed light on an event with many dark sides.

The public prosecutor has accused the outgoing prime minister and three ministers of negligence, but the investigation has not progressed for weeks and many are calling for an independent enquiry amid growing charges and vetoes.

After more than 200 dead, more 6,000 injured including some permanently disabled, hundreds of thousands of broken lives, businesses gone up in smoke, devastated houses, will a cloak of oblivion, ignorance and guilty silence cover the immense tragedy that occurred last 4 August in the Port of Beirut?

Cardiologist Nazih Adem whose daughter Krystel was taken away in her prime by the double explosion cannot resign himself to what happened. Regardless of any hope he might have of seeing the truth established one day, he thinks that his silence would only be tantamount to “complicity with the crime” that took place.

“Our dead will only be truly dead if we forget them,” Dr Adem said, quoting Jean d'Ormesson from memory. “I want to know who killed my daughter. She did not choose to die a martyr. She died in her home.”

His compassion goes to the firefighters who disappeared at the site of the twin explosions and to those sent by their superiors, knowing full well that they would be sent to certain death. “I saw with my own eyes soldiers wounded or lying on the ground at the naval base in Beirut. Can no one demand truth and justice for them?” wonders the doctor.

After placing the lifeless body of his daughter in an ambulance driving through the streets of the devastated port district, he ran, bewildered, from morgue to morgue in an attempt to see her angelic face. Six months later, like hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, Dr Adem slams “the law of silence that cloaks this tragedy and prevents the truth from revealing itself.” Lebanon has become “the graveyard of the truth”.

All the means of the Beirut Bar

Faced with such carnage, the president of the Bar Association Melhem Khalaf grits his teeth. Having a certain familiarity with humanitarian actions, he soon reacted to the tragedy and provided the Bar Association with the means to file a case that he considers “national in scope”. As a result, hundreds of legal cases were initiated thanks to the joint effort of lawyers, collectives (Legal Agenda, Mouttahidoun), and the Bar Association, ending up on the desk of Judge Fadi Sawam, who was put in charge of investigating the incident by the Court of Justice.

This is a substantial effort. Today the Bar is handling, for free, some 1,400 individual cases against “person or persons unknown” for loss of life, injuries, and material damage. However, only 120 of these cases have been fully completed and are before Judge Sawan, who is in charge of the investigation. The other cases are still waiting to be completed with official documents, expert reports, estimates by experts, prosecutors, etc.

It should also be stressed that the Bar Association does not usually take on cases involving insurance companies. Few of them pay out compensation to their clients, and most of them, explains the Bar Association president, are stalling to see how this tragedy is clearly defined.

Supporting Fadi Sawan

“We must support Fadi Sawan,” said Melhem Khalaf, as the victims’ families hold protests under the judge’s office window over the seemingly slow enquiry. “A titanic effort is required, and fine tuning. No area of law will be left out in the work and conclusions that we will bring to his attention. But he is certainly under huge pressure. We must not leave him alone. He must feel that public opinion is close to him; he must realise that people are on his side.”

At the same time, the president of the Bar Association remains firmly opposed to an international. One of the issues the investigation must deal with, and one of the most difficult to solve, concerns what set off the explosion that blew up the warehoused ammonium nitrate.

The answer of MP Margaret Hodge

With respect to the real identity of the owner of the Savaro company who rented the Rhosus freighter, British MP Margaret Hodge gave her support to the enquiry. For her, no one shall escape justice if their responsibility is ascertained. So far, the alleged owner, a Cypriot businesswoman named Marina Psyllou, has said that she is not the real owner, whilst refusing to reveal the names of the true owner.

Two more leads

A second lead on which the Bar Association is working is the quantity of ammonium nitrate that blew up. An FBI report states that only 500 tonnes of nitrate blew up in the double explosion. “We must therefore find 2,250 tonnes,” Khalaf said.

It is clear that, given the amount of data at his disposal, Judge Fadi Sawan should be able to provide some certainty to the thousands of plaintiffs awaiting his conclusions. So what is he waiting for to pursue the investigation?

For sociologist and anthropologist Carmen Aboujaoudé, “It is time to end impunity, we must not miss this opportunity. The wave of political killings that have plagued the country since 2005 are on the verge of being forgotten.

“International justice has disappointed, as we have seen with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (responsible for the investigation into the murder of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and which recently issued its verdict).

“With the port tragedy, a whole country has the opportunity to redeem itself, to regain its dignity by making criminals pay the bill. We must hold onto this unique opportunity that is offered to us to achieve justice.”

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