The families of the victims of the explosion at the port of Beirut called for action on Thursday to prevent the holding of the parliamentary session scheduled at the call of the Speaker of the House Nabih Berri. This session aims to transfer the case of senior Lebanese officials to the high court of justice in charge of judging current and former presidents, prime ministers or even ministers. The families of the victims consider this maneuver by the political parties as aimed at exonerating some of their leaders from their responsibilities since this court is half composed of parliamentarians, the other half being judges.
As a reminder, the former Minister of Finance Ali Hassan Khalil, the former Minister of Public Works Ghazi Zoaiter, two close to Nabih Berri, or the former Minister of the Interior Nouhad Machnouk, meanwhile a close friend of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, are the subject of a request for questioning from investigative judge Tarek Bitar.
This request seems to be for the moment frozen by the office of the Parliament on the pretext of a request for additional information. However, the judge believes that responding to this request could jeopardize the investigation. From judicial sources, it is estimated that pressure could be exerted against certain key witnesses.
The Courant Patriotique Libre and the Lebanese Forces also announced the boycott of this session, in order to, perhaps, try to obtain a lack of quorum. They could be joined by other deputies so some parliamentarians like Marwan Hamadé or some members of the Courant du Futur who had already dissociated themselves from the petition presented at the initiative of the former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and aimed at the referral of the file. before the high court of justice.
The explosion of the port of Beirut
As a reminder, more than 200 people are reported to have died and more than 6,500 people were injured in the explosion that devastated the port of Beirut and much of the Lebanese capital on 4 August. 300,000 people are also reported to be homeless as a result of the explosion.
The trail of an accidental explosion on 4 August 2020 of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate inside a warehouse in beirut harbour, seized in 2014 on a garbage ship, the Moldovan-flagged Rhosus, is currently favoured by the Lebanese authorities. This explosion would be equivalent to that of 600 tons of TNT or an earthquake of 3.3 on the Richter scale.
It is said to have caused a crater 110 metres long and 43 metres deep, a security source said on Sunday (August 9th), citing comments by French experts at the scene.
Speaking in the Columns of the Washington Post on 7 September, the Prosecutor of the Republic, Judge Ghassan Oweidat, revealed that in addition to the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, kerosene, gazoil, 25 tons of fireworks and detonators for use for mines were also present in the same warehouse.
The presence of these products could have maintained the fire and allowed it to reach the temperatures allowing the explosion of ammonium nitrate, some experts point out.
The damage is estimated to be between $10 billion and $15 billion.
The port of Beirut, an area where corruption was widespread
The Lebanese authorities’ refusal to set up an international investigation is linked to the fear that the scale of corruption at Lebanon’s main gate would be involved in almost all Lebanese political parties, including some who are now calling for the investigation, some media sources note, under the guise of a temporary authority to manage the port of Beirut whose appointments were made on official sectarian lines.
Saad Hariri, who has been in question almost because of his closeness to the former director of the port of Beirut Hassan Koraytem for more than 20 years, now denies any direct link with him.
On the spot, operators note that the transit of goods often gives rise to a racketeering. Thus, in order to be able to get goods out of the port of Beirut, important undersides must be frequently paid.
Others note that some shipments are not checked. Goods are also under-billed so as not to pay taxes due to a state in financial crisis.
The investigation into those responsible for the explosion
At present, 33 people are currently under investigation. Among them, the director of the port of Beirut, Hassan Koraytem, as well as the director of the Lebanese customs services Badri Daher, both indicted by the examining magistrate Fadi Sawwan, in charge of the investigation.
In total, several security officials and the port of Beirut were arrested.
Some sources point out that the various Lebanese political parties had shared the revenues of the port of Beirut , making it difficult at present to know the responsibilities of each in this explosion.
Several political parties, both majority and opposition, would also like to conclude the investigation quickly, having been involved in various traffickings that take place to or from the port of Beirut. They would like to avoid the degree of involvement of each individual and the security violations necessary to continue their trafficking.
Also, security officials had warned the political authorities several times in recent years, the judicial authorities have not decided on the implementation of the necessary measures of transfer of the cargo.
Sources close to the case also point to the responsibility of several administrations in the port of Beirut, especially since senior officials were aware of the danger posed by the improper storage of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate since 2014.
Although the FBI report could not conclude on the origin of the explosion and suggests an apparently accidental lead based on information provided by the Lebanese authorities, Lebanon remains awaiting the results of parallel investigations conducted by France and Great Britain.
On 10 December, Judge Fadi Sawwan indicted outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab, former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former transport ministers Ghazi Zeiter and Youssef Finianos.
The two former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zoeitar, also close to the president of the chamber Nabih Berri, then refused to go to the judge, believing they enjoy parliamentary immunity. However, this immunity has been the subject of controversy, with the Beirut Bar ruling that it cannot be applied in the context of this case.
The latter then obtain the judge’s dismissal in February 2021, the court of cassation, seized by 2 former ministers, the former minister of finance Ali Hassan Khalil and the former minister of transport Ghazi Zoaiter, having decided that the magistrate had motivated his decision whereas his residence is located in the district of ‘Ashrafieh also damaged by the explosion. He was therefore a stakeholder in this case.
Judge Tarek Bitar was then appointed on February 19 . Its name having already been proposed last August as part of the same procedure. At the time, however, he refused to become the investigative judge in the case of the tragedy of August 4, on the pretext of a heavy workload.
In early June, the new judge indicated that 3 hypotheses were examined after French experts have revealed the content of a preliminary report , that of a human error following a welding work which started a fire, an intentional fire or an explosion following the firing of a rocket.
According to the judge, one of these hypotheses would be ruled out by more than 80% following receipt of the report from the French experts which finally reached Lebanon.
There remain 2 hypotheses which are currently the subject of in-depth studies. Some sources indicate that these would be the hypotheses of an arson or accidental fire.
Beginning of July, Judge Tarek Bitar calls for the lifting of parliamentary immunity of a number of officials including the former finance minister, Ali Hassan Khalil and the former minister of public works, Ghazi Zeaiter, 2 close to the president of the chamber of deputies Nabih Berri as well as the former interior ministers Nouhad Machnouk, all suspected of having been made aware of the presence of dangerous substances. He also requested permission to question a number of former officials and current officials of the security services including the director of general security, General Abbas Ibrahim or the former commander of the Lebanese army, the General Jean Kahwaji.
This Friday July 9, the parliamentary bureau and the parliamentary administration and justice committee have reportedly postponed the decision to lift the immunity of the parliamentarians concerned , asking for more information on this.
The same day, Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi refused to allow the interrogation of General Abbas Ibrahim leading Judge Tarek Bitar to lodge an appeal with the Court of Cassation.