FAMILIES of the Beirut Port blast victims are continuing to protest against the suspension of the probe into the devastating explosion that took place in Lebanon on August 4th 2020 – warning that this is the ‘last opportunity for accountability’.
About 300 protesters gathered last Wednesday by the Palace of Justice – in the Lebanese capital, Beirut – to condemn top officials for attempting to remove lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar from the probe after it was suspended on Monday.
Paul Naggear, who lost his three-year-old daughter Alexandra in the blast, was outraged that the probe into it is now suspended. He likened certain Lebanese officials to ‘criminals’.
‘Although expected from the mafia, it’s disgusting’, Naggear told Al Jazeera. Other fellow-protesters held up portraits of the family members they lost in the blast: and among them was 17-year-old Christelle Merhi, whose father Joseph worked at the Beirut Port and was killed in it.
‘If we don’t demand the truth then we won’t ever know what happened to the victims,’ Merhi told Al Jazeera. ‘We support Judge Bitar and want him to continue.’
The Beirut port blast inquiry was suspended on Monday after former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk – who is himself accused of criminal negligence over the blast – formally notified the investigator Bitar of his request to dismiss him from the case.
Machnouk, a sitting parliamentarian, along with former Public Works Minister Youssef Finianos, requested the removal of Bitar from the blast investigation last week, accusing the judge of bias and misconduct.
The legal complaint on the grounds of ‘legitimate suspicion’ is similar to complaints lodged in December 2020 by former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeiter against Judge Bitar’s predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan.
Khalil and Zeiter accused Sawan of being unable to conduct a fair investigation because his Beirut residence had been damaged in the blast. Sawan stepped down from the investigation in February.
Finianos is one of a handful of former ministers and senior security officials Bitar charged with criminal negligence in early July, but who had refused to appear for questioning.
The others include former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, former Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, and former Public Works Minister Zeiter.
Bitar also filed charges against former army commander General Jean Kahwaji and former head of military intelligence Brigadier-General Kameel Daher, as well as two other retired intelligence generals.
Hours before the investigation was suspended, Bitar had also filed requests to the Interior Ministry to summon top security officials General Security Chief Major-General Abbas Ibrahim and State Security Chief Major-General Tony Saliba for questioning.
At least 218 people were killed in the August 4, 2020, Beirut Port blast when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored unsafely at the port for years, detonated.
The death count continues to increase. A 35-year-old accountant Ibrahim Harb, who fell into a coma after the blast, succumbed to his wounds on Tuesday. A total of around 6,500 people were injured, and entire neighbourhoods in Lebanon’s capital were destroyed. The blast was was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, and was the most destructive single incident in the country’s troubled history.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who previously admitted that he knew about the dangerous ammonium nitrate stockpile, meanwhile issued a statement on Wednesday supporting the continuation of the investigation. ‘The investigation must continue for the guilty to be convicted and the innocent to be acquitted,’ his statement said.
Neither Bitar nor his predecessor has summoned the president thus far. But political and security officials across the country’s array of sect-based political parties have been critical of Judge Bitar.
The Hezbollah movement’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, accused Bitar of ‘playing politics’ on the first anniversary of the blast, while Grand Mufti Abdel-Latif Derian also condemned Bitar for subpoenaing Diab, describing the move as ‘reprehensible’.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati has not been as vocally critical of Bitar as others, although he did tell local broadcaster LBCI that he doesn’t think Lebanon ‘could withstand the second judge being removed’.
Human Rights Watch’s local watchdog Legal Agenda, and other organisations, have accused the country’s leadership of obstructing the investigation and unjustly targeting Bitar.
And a handful of civil society organisations, survivors, and UN experts have called too for an international probe, which they believe would be more technically effective and would prevent constant obstruction.
And the European Parliament recently followed suit, passing a new resolution on Lebanon calling for the same.
- Meanwhile, tankers carrying Iranian fuel arrived from Syria at al-Ain in Hermel in east Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on September 16, 2021 – as Hezbollah breaks the de facto siege on Lebanon. Dozens of the tankers, carrying Iranian fuel and transported by the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, arrived from Syria into a Lebanon in the grip of severe fuel shortages.
Hezbollah has broken the American siege on Lebanon by importing fuel, from Iran and via Syria: as Lebanon suffers a debilitating fuel shortage, power cuts and a deepening economic crisis.
So how did Iran, Syria and Hezbollah succeed in bypassing US sanctions, while also forcing America’s hand into giving Lebanon gas from Egypt and electricity from Jordan?
We examine what this means for Lebanon economically and politically, how it alters the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape.
At first, they merely suggested it. Now, they’ve actually done it; Hezbollah has successfully imported fuel from Iran into Lebanon.
Yet Lebanon has been suffering from a deepening economic crisis for almost two years now, with power cuts, food shortages, fuel shortages and an almost total devaluation of its currency.
The whole point of importing the fuel was to try to mitigate this. And while some argue that the shipment undermines Lebanese sovereignty, others argue – and recognise – that it is in fact a victory for the Resistance Front, for people waving flags in celebration of the arrival of the fuel.
Lebanon has been suffering from a severe economic crisis for almost two years. Many factors have contributed to this including political instability and the lack of a central government, Lebanon has only just recently been able to form a new government. Moreover, the war in Syria has also impacted the country severely, and visa versa, given how closely, Syria, and Lebanon’s economies are interlinked.
All these events combined have led to a terrible situation where the Lebanese pound, or lira, has lost more than 90% of its value since October 2019. But Hezbollah has broken the de facto American siege on Lebanon by importing fuel from Iran, through Syria.