The silos at Beirut’s port stood smoldering as a fire burned within the skeletal remains of the structure that has become a scar on the face of Lebanon’s capital city and a reminder of the crime committed against its residents.
Then, all of a sudden, the northern section of the silos collapsed in a cloud of dust and debris, signaling that this symbol of the August 4 explosion would be gone sooner rather than later.
The fire at the silos had been burning for several weeks before the section collapsed on July 31. The fire department was unable to extinguish the flames, and the caretaker government headed by Najib Mikati ordered emergency services to stay away from the silos as they could collapse at any time and disperse hazardous materials into the air.
The government had wanted to demolish the silos and eventually rebuild them, but the families of the victims of the port explosion demanded that they remain until the investigation into the explosion is completed. Now, with the silos’ collapse, the government was getting its wish, much to the dismay of the countless Beirutis who were affected by the explosion.
Even the investigation has gone nowhere, having been suspended indefinitely in December 2021 after MPs Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter filed lawsuits against the investigating judge, Tarek Bitar, and the judges that would normally rule on these sorts of lawsuits were removed. The caretaker minister of finance, Youssef el-Khalil, refused to sign off on funding so that new judges can be appointed.
According to lawyer and researcher with Legal Agenda Ghida Frangieh, this is at the core of the problems facing the investigation into the port explosion.
“The whole problem since the beginning [of the investigation] is that our senior officials are refusing to submit to the judiciary and the investigation because they believe that they are above that,” Frangieh told NOW. “They believe that they are above accountability. And the whole fight around this is to ensure that senior officials and influential people can be held accountable.”
When the Beirut Blast first occurred, then-caretaker Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told the Lebanese broadcaster LBC that the investigation would not take long.
“The investigation of the port explosion will be transparent, take 5 days, and any officials involved will be held accountable,” Fahmi assured the public.
Now, it is two years since the explosion, and not one person involved in the catastrophic blast has faced any consequences.
While few in Lebanon actually believed that the investigation would only take five days, many have expressed frustration that still there has been no accountability.
But Frangieh says that people should not be surprised at the length of the investigation, as major crimes, such as the port explosion, can take years to investigate.
“Take the example of the ammonium nitrate explosion in France [in September 2001]. It took 12 years to reach a solution in court,” the lawyer explained. “But the problem in Lebanon is that the blast investigation is suspended. It’s not even in progress. If it were in progress and it would take that much time, that could be understandable. But it’s currently suspended and it’s suspended by political decisions.”
There is a lack of independence in Lebanon’s judiciary, with many of the judges receiving positions through political connections and favors and politicians constantly interfering in legal and judicial affairs to avoid facing any consequences.
After the end of Lebanon’s bloody 15-year civil war in 1990, only one militia leader, Samir Geagea, served any time in prison for crimes committed during the war. The other militia leaders handed in their combat fatigues and put on suits so that they could run the country after a general amnesty was agreed upon.
When former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated by a car bomb on February 14, 2005, Syria, which was occupying Lebanon at the time and whose leader, Bashar al-Assad, had a fraught relationship with Hariri, was quick to be blamed for Hariri’s killing which led to the end of the Syrian occupation and a major electoral victory by the anti-Syrian occupation March 14 bloc.
Those investigating the bombing were killed off one by one, including as Wissam al-Hassan who headed the information branch of Lebanon’s security services and who was killed after he started digging into the Hariri assassination. This led to the creation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon at the behest of the Lebanese government in order to investigate Hariri’s killing and the assassinations that followed.
But Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the government in opposition to the international investigation, removing the Shiite block and thereby forcing the now “illegitimate” government to fall apart according to Lebanon’s sectarian balancing act.
It was not until August 2021 when the STL finally issued its verdict, finding several Hezbollah members guilty of the killings.
According to Ronnie Chatah, whose father, former Finance Minister Mohammad Chatah, was assassinated in December 2013, a sense of justice was possible because the investigation was done at the Hague by an international investigator.
“That is the exception. Where a special tribunal exists beyond Lebanon’s geography and can deliver some semblance of justice,” the 40-year-old told NOW,
“There’s a verdict and, prior to that, a trial. It’s a 17 years long story that ends with information and there are actually names listed. That is justice. It’s emotionless. It’s robbed of any pleasure. But that is a form of justice where you have answers, you have culprits and you have accused and the guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Unless a perpetrator was caught red-handed, like in the case of the former politician Michel Samaha who was intercepted with explosives in his car after returning from Syria, they are unlikely to face any consequences.
Even then, justice is often short-lived, with Samaha being released from prison just days before the two-year anniversary of the port explosion, after serving a 10-year sentence.
While there was some political interference in the past, nothing has compared to how much politicians and their allies have tried to put an end to Judge Tarek Bitar’s investigation into the August 4 explosion.
When Hassan Khalil and Zeaiter were called in for questioning by Fadi Sawan, the first judge assigned to the case, they filed lawsuits against him, which ultimately ruled that Sawan should be removed because, since his home was damaged in the explosion, he was too biased to lead the investigation.
Bitar was then tapped to lead the investigation and, like Sawan, looked to question Hassan Khalil and Zeaiter, calling on Parliament to lift their ministerial immunity.
But when immunity was lifted, Hassan Khalil and Zeaiter filed lawsuit after lawsuit against Bitar in the hopes of removing him as they did his predecessor. When that did not work, the Amal Movement and Hezbollah staged a demonstration in front of the Justice Palace in Beirut calling for Bitar’s removal.
What they are doing today is suspending a whole court and, therefore, suspending justice in its entirety in order to ensure that those accused in these cases evade accountability. They’re blocking accountability in everything in the country and not just the blast investigation.
This ultimately led to a deadly shootout in Tayyouneh, an area on the border of the predominately Shiite Chiyeh and Christian Ain el-Remmaneh neighborhoods which left six people dead and many more injured.
Hezbollah and its supporters have also worked to try and discredit Bitar using its various outlets to demonize the judge and to blame him for events like the Tayyouneh clashes.
Now, with Bitar still at the helm of the investigation, the politicians are trying another tactic to ensure that the investigation stops in its tracks.
After Hassan Khalil and Zeaiter filed yet another lawsuit against Bitar, the judges involved in ruling on the case were removed. New judges have not yet been appointed.
While the Ministry of Justice has approved the names of the new judges, the Ministry of Finance has yet to sign off on them. Khalil is a close ally of Nabih Berri who heads the Amal Movement, a party in which both Hassan Khalil and Zeaiter are members.
This has far-reaching consequences outside of the Beirut Blast investigation, also putting the investigation into Lebanon’s Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh and his brother on hold as they also filed lawsuits against the investigator.
“Since the investigation is suspended by a political decision that’s refusing to assign judges to the court, this court doesn’t only look into the blast investigation lawsuits, it also looks into lawsuits related to Riad Salameh and the banks and others,” Frangieh explained. “What they are doing today is suspending a whole court and, therefore, suspending justice in its entirety in order to ensure that those accused in these cases evade accountability. They’re blocking accountability in everything in the country and not just the blast investigation.”
According to Frangieh, the fact that the politicians are working so hard to prevent accountability makes their tactics clearer and allows advocates for an independent judiciary in Lebanon to learn how to better combat these tactics and devise plans on how to try and work around them.
But this will take time and begs the question as to if there will ever be any final resolution to the August 4 investigation.
Will there ever be justice?
In the wake of the port explosion in 2020, many in Lebanon called for an international investigation to look into what happened and to hold those responsible accountable as they had no faith in the Lebanese judiciary, viewing it as being corrupted by the ruling political establishment.
Given the level of political interference in the investigation up until this point, Chatah believes that without the STL investigation into the Hariri assassination, the investigation would have looked very similar to what the port blast investigation looks like today.
“Right now, the port blast anniversary and what’s happening in the last two years is exactly what would have happened had there been no special tribunal,” Chatah stated.
“You would have a cover-up. You would have a repaved corniche. You would have some names accused that are meaningless. And you would have had a political assassination that nobody would be talking about. You would have had a simple “force it down the population’s throats”. This is part of politics in Lebanon. That didn’t happen with the special tribunal but we don’t have that kind of investigation with the port blast. So you’re really seeing how justice is not delivered in a country.”
A big reason for this, according to Chatah, is that it is impossible to fix the issues plaguing Lebanon’s judiciary until the security issue posed by Hezbollah is first addressed.
“It would be a mistake to assume that there is a judicial process in this country or a judicial authority in this country that is stronger, better equipped, autonomous and independent from a security problem that has destroyed judicial authority in Lebanon,” he said.
Another international investigation, though, may not be on the table for multiple reasons.
The first being that there is no political will in Lebanon to request the investigation.
When the tribunal was called for after the 2005 elections, the March 14 held had a majority, but it cost them dearly politically as they lost their majority in the following election.
Currently, Parliament is split, with Hezbollah and its allies maintaining a slight majority, albeit just short of an outright majority, so there is no coalition in Parliament capable of seriously calling for an investigation.
On top of that, there is little appetite from the international community to launch any sort of investigation. France, which has been the most vocal country when it comes to Lebanon, has given no indication that it is interested in leading any such investigation.
An international investigation, like the STL, would not be able to arrest any of those found responsible for the crime, leaving it up to the Lebanese state to do.
“[The Lebanese state] been perverted to not do that,” Chatah said. “And it’s quite poetic in the ugliest way that two days before the port blast anniversary, not only are the remnants of the silos collapsing in broad daylight, but a mastermind of political assassination attempts is freed. This is actually the inverse of justice.”
Finally, according to Frangieh, the cost of an international investigation is too high both in terms of finance and the impact that it has on Lebanon’s judiciary.
“Our assessment [at Legal Agenda] is that that experience of the international tribunal for Hariri, or the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, did not have positive repercussions on the Lebanese judiciary,” she stated. “All that money we spent to try one case could have provided our judiciary with more capabilities and more resources and could have built a better judiciary.”
She also argues that it is important to look at the rationale for the investigation at the time as was that “the Lebanese judiciary would benefit from it and that rationale was used by both the political camp that was with the tribunal and the political camp that was against.”
However, neither those for nor against the tribunal have done anything to better Lebanon’s judiciary despite what they said at the time.
Instead, Frangieh says that it is important for Lebanon’s judiciary to handle the case, and that if the international community is to be involved, then it should be under the strict premise of a fact-finding mission.
Justice is not something that has a magical recipe that you get just in one day. Justice is a long path. Justice is something that you fight for. It’s never given to you. It’s always something that you fight for.
On August 3, the day before its two-year anniversary, humanitarian organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, called on the United Nations to establish a fact-finding mission into the port blast.
Frangieh also stressed the importance of establishing an independent judiciary in Lebanon that can operate without politically influential individuals using their connections and power to evade justice, although this is something that would take time and a lot of effort to do given the current situation in Lebanon.
The focus of the investigation has primarily been on who in Lebanon knew about the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate but allowed it to remain at the port in the squalor conditions that ultimately led to the explosion.
There is also the question of why the material was in Lebanon in the first place.
Allegedly, Syrian-Russian businessmen George Haswani and Imad Khoury are linked to the company that procured the chemicals, Savaro Ltd, and also have close ties to Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
This raised the possibility that the ammonium nitrate was actually destined for Syria for use by the regime in its civil war before the ship transporting the material was prevented from leaving Beirut’s port.
But since the connection between Haswani and Khoury to the ammonium nitrate was made public in January 2021, little else has been said about it. The two deny any knowledge of Savaro Ltd or the ammonium nitrate.
For the countless victims of the port explosion, justice is likely still a long way away, but Frangieh believes that it will eventually come as “no one is going to forget this crime.”
“The question is who is held accountable, how and all of these issues, but what we’re betting on is that social movements keep the demand for justice alive,” she argued. “Justice is not something that has a magical recipe that you get just in one day. Justice is a long path. Justice is something that you fight for. It’s never given to you. It’s always something that you fight for.”
Nicholas Frakes is a multimedia journalist with @NOW_leb. He tweets @nicfrakesjourno.