A man holds a placard near the seaport of Beirut on October 4, 2020, with pictures of people killed in the massive August 4 explosion. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)

No Justice for Beirut Blast Victims Without an Independent Judiciary

10/08/2020 . By Kareem Chehayeb

Two months since the devastating Beirut Port blast, citizens of Lebanon and residents of the capital have yet to be officially informed of most developments or findings surrounding the government’s ongoing investigation. The explosion left about 200 dead, over 6,500 wounded, and hundreds of thousands homeless.

The investigation process has been murky from the start. The day after the explosion, then-Prime Minister Hasan Diab said a five-day government-led investigation would take place to figure out the source of the explosion. While the findings from those five days were given to the Cabinet, they were never made publicly available.

Since then, a military judge has led an ongoing confidential investigation to identify those responsible for the explosion. When asked in a rare televised interview about the matter, President Michel Aoun simply said, “I’m not following up on it.” “Could it be?” the baffled interviewer asked. Aoun confidently replied, “Absolutely. This is a secret investigation.” And that was all that was said about the Beirut Port explosion during the entire 60-minute interview.

In late September, however, two official statements were released, announcing that the testimonies of the owner of an unnamed shipping company at the port and a former minister of justice had been taken.

Otherwise, all other information and updates on the investigation have come through leaks from high-profile media personalities and news organizations, such as the detentions of the head of the Customs and Beirut Port Authority and his predecessor. Some are paying the price for it, such as journalist Radwan Mortada, who was summoned for an interrogation for leaking information to the public.

But on top of this lack of transparency is the structure of the investigation, headed by Fadi Sawwan, a military investigative judge. Appointed following frustrating negotiations between caretaker-Minister of Justice Marie-Claude Najm and the Supreme Judicial Council, the investigation’s very foundations epitomize Lebanon’s lack of an independent judiciary and its desperate need for one.

Though Article 20 of the Lebanese Constitution stipulates that the judiciary functions independently, its very structure and framework ultimately compromise this independence. In fact, the judiciary becomes an extension of the ruling elite’s influence and patronage networks.

A crucial example of this is the Supreme Judicial Council—also referred to as the Higher Judicial Council—a pivotal body tasked with judicial appointments, transfers, and training. It is composed of 10 members, eight of which are appointed by the executive branch. The remaining two are voted by Lebanon’s Court of Cassation. Of the eight that are appointed by the executive branch, three are ex officio members without clear and strict terms. The others hold one-time three-year terms. The significant role of the executive branch in forming Lebanon’s top legal authority is a clear conflict of interest in establishing a democratic and independent judiciary.

This council is theoretically supposed to act as a balance to the Ministry of Justice. In practice, things look rather different.

Decisions to appoint (or reject) a candidate for the council can be done on any basis without providing any reason or justification—and these decisions are not subject to appeal. They can only be enforced following approval from the Ministry of Justice.

Rather than merit, this system ultimately allows for judicial appointments to be based on political and sectarian affiliations, with room for other discriminatory practices. Even in situations when the Supreme Judicial Council makes independent recruitment decisions, the need for approval from the ministry adds an additional another layer in the decision-making process tied to the ruling elite.

Furthermore, the judiciary also lacks financial independence, as its annual budget is allocated under the Ministry of Justice, ultimately controlling all of its financial activity.

In short, Lebanon’s judiciary is neither financially nor administratively independent and has significant loopholes that prevent it from functioning autonomously and impartially as per its constitution. As the International Court of Jurists aptly said in 2017, the Supreme Judicial Council “allows for improper political influence over virtually every aspect of judges’ careers.”

It is therefore unsurprising that some segments of the population have called for an international investigation into the explosion, with some human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch echoing these sentiments. The vast majority of Lebanon’s political leadership has opposed this.

The Beirut Port explosion and its investigation without an independent judiciary is a prime example of why it is urgent that a judicial restructuring and overhaul is more crucial than ever.

An independent judiciary is a key demand from much of Lebanese civil society, as well as anti-government protesters, who since October 2019 have called for extensive political and economic reforms across the board. These calls come on the heels of the country’s ongoing economic crisis and systematic corruption and financial mismanagement.

A draft law that would guarantee the independence of the judiciary is currently gathering dust in Parliament. In its original form, the draft law guarantees financial independence from the Ministry of Justice and restructures the Supreme Judicial Council to be composed of judges and legal experts elected by their peers for only four-year terms. In addition, it also promotes more inclusion from different segments of society, including women. It is unclear to what extent this will be modified or diluted by Lebanon’s MPs.

The Beirut Port explosion was the result of decades of financial mismanagement and corruption at the hands of Lebanon’s ruling parties, with virtually no oversight and transparency. The lack of an impartial, independent, and transparency mechanism means that a just resolution is merely aspirational.

A just resolution extends to not just the port explosion, but also to the root causes of Lebanon’s economic crisis that the international community has invested itself heavily in resolving, such as the nefarious use of public funds and assets for illicit profiteering. Anti-corruption and accountability mechanisms are among the long list of mostly economic reforms needed for Lebanon to unlock a pledged $11.1 billion in loans for development projects in 2018 or receive an International Monetary Fund bailout. However, if the international community is truly invested in making the country viable, then it must prioritize pushing for establishing an independent judiciary. Otherwise, economic corruption, financial mismanagement, and nefarious profiteering in Lebanon will continue to run rampant, with zero meaningful accountability and justice.

And in the event of another catastrophe like the Beirut blast, an investigation led by an independent judiciary would not only offer more transparency to the people of Lebanon, but would be more effective in getting to the truth, with no strings attached.