Almost a year since the August 4 blast at the Beirut port, investigations have yet to provide answers as to who should be held accountable and in what capacity. Rather, those in charge are content with arresting a few individuals through a procedure that fails to meet international fair trial standards.
We are only some days away from the annual commemoration of the crime of the decade, and the survivors and families of the martyrs still hold one demand high above all else: finding out the truth, particularly with regards to who allowed these dangerous explosive materials into Lebanon, who ordered them to be stored in hangar 12, and who broke or neglected the law up until the August 4 crime.
Despite Lebanese, French and American probes, journalistic investigations and analyses, and international interest, the local judiciary has yet to yield results. Has the Lebanese judiciary failed to investigate the matter truthfully? Or have several different factors affected the course of the investigation and with it, our journey to the truth?
A failed judiciary system
Human Rights Watch researcher Aya Majzoub refused to accuse the Lebanese judiciary system of failure, but told Beirut Today that “Lebanese people have experienced the judiciary system with regards to major cases that either became politicized or did not reveal the truth, especially in crimes of assassination, corruption, or the use of violence against protesters.”
The Lebanese judiciary system has proven time and time again that it cannot reveal the truth when it comes to certain cases or that it simply does not want to hold the ruling class accountable for crimes committed against the Lebanese people, according to Majzoub. The researcher said this ties back to the structure of the judiciary system, which is divided along sectarian lines and sees the appointment of judges through political favoritism.
The judiciary belongs to the political class, which Majzoub said became evident on April 19 when Future Movement supporters held a protest in support of State Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oueidat, while supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement held one for Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor Ghada Aoun.
An international investigation
A joint letter urged the member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council to launch an investigation, such as a one-year fact-finding mission, into the August 4 explosion.
Signed by 53 Lebanese, regional, and international rights groups and individuals, alongside 63 survivors and family members of Beirut blast victims, the letter called for an international, independent, and impartial investigative mission.
Majzoub stressed the importance of such a probe, which would send its findings to the concerned members of the Lebanese judiciary after it has concluded.
“There are two parts to justice. The first is the truth, which families of the victims and everyone else are demanding. The second is the identification of those responsible for the crime,” said Majzoub. “Justice isn’t only about the truth, but that’s a form of it.”
In conversation with Beirut Today, Majzoub clarified that any decision coming out of any international investigation should be made public.
Given that many of the blast victims carry dual nationalities, publically-accesible findings help them take those responsible to court in their home countries and allow the issuing of international arrest warrants against the accused.
Flaws in the investigation
In the aftermath of the port explosion, Lebanese authorities promised a quick and transparent investigation. But, the ten months following the explosion brought along a wave of obstruction, evasion, and delay.
Majzoub explained that the politicization of the judiciary is not the only limitation affecting the local investigation. Human Rights Watch documented several flaws in the local investigation that make it incapable of yielding truthful results, including the referral of the case to the Judicial Council on August 10, 2020.
The special court is not subject to any appeals process and does not comply with international standards for a fair trial –including the set of United Nations principles signed by Lebanon and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The court also did not issue any indictments, but 37 individuals were charged –19 of which are currently detained in conditions that appear to violate due process rights.
According to Majzoub, restricting the investigation to one legal investigator thwarts and delays the process, especially given that the port blast is one of the biggest cases witnessed by the Lebanese judiciary and includes files and documents from the year 2013.
HRW identified blatant political interference, impunity for senior political officials, the failure to respect fair trial standards, and due process violations as some of the flaws surrounding the Lebanese investigation.
The rights of the detained
Majzoub highlighted the rights of detainees who were arrested 10 months ago before receiving a trial, violating due process rights and contradicting international human rights standards by holding them in prolonged detention before receiving a trial.
She also revealed that the detained are unaware of the charges pressed against them and their supporting evidence, adding that everyone –from the heads of the customs administration to the maintenance worker who was “welding” the door of warehouse 12– is accused of the same list of crimes.
She quoted the lawyers of the defendants saying that their clients were initially detained prior to the issuance of an arrest warrant, also mentioning the immense political pressure and interference in this case.
On February 18, the Court of Cassation dismissed the judicial investigator, Fadi Sawan, from the Beirut explosion case. The judge was replaced following a motion filed by two former ministers and two parliamentarians.
Sawan had charged the ministers in connection with the blast. In turn, he was accused of violating their constitutional immunity by bypassing parliament, which has the authority to form a legal body that tries presidents and ministers.
The HRW researcher explained that the investigation consists of several parts. The first focuses on the causes of the Beirut blast and is based on the crime scene, where two French teams and another from the FBI conducted an investigation and submitted it to the Lebanese judiciary. Another and more important part focuses on the politicians or authorities who allowed the entry of the hazardous material into Lebanon.
Is it not yet time?
The Beirut blast killed 217 individuals. It also injured around 7,000 citizens and residents, of whom 150 now suffer from a physical disability, and displaced approximately 300,000 from their homes.
Don’t these people deserve the establishment of a fact-finding committee that can restore confidence in the judiciary by uncovering the truth, arriving at justice, and ending the culture of impunity?
Is it not time for the Human Rights Council to intervene and listen to the calls of the families of the victims and the Lebanese people’s demand for accountability?