A view of devastated Beirut port, almost one year after the August 2020 massive explosion, in Beirut, Lebanon on August 3, 2021. (Photo by Hussam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Explainers

Accountability for the Beirut Port Explosion: One Year Later

On August 4, 2020, tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been neglected at the Beirut Port exploded, killing at least 207 victims, injuring another 7,500, and leaving 300,000 homeless. One year later, accountability in any form remains far from being realized.

Since the explosion, what steps have Lebanese authorities taken in response to wide-ranging calls from the public and international community for accountability?

Immediately following the explosion, a wave of officials resigned. On August 8, 2020, demonstrators took to the streets only to be met with batons, tear gas, and live bullets. Over 200 protesters were wounded that day and a number were referred to be tried in military court.

On August 10, 2020, then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced the resignation of the government. Authorities arrested low to mid-level port and customs workers and officials. Diab immediately announced a five-day government-led inquiry to identify the cause of the explosion. Though the findings from the inquiry were given to the cabinet, they were never made public. Very early on, President Michel Aoun dismissed the possibility of an international investigation into the explosion, stating that it would “dilute the truth.” 

Instead, Judge Fadi Sawan, who had been a military court judge since 2009, was tasked with leading a domestic judicial investigation to bring a case before the Higher Judicial Council, Lebanon’s highest judicial body. Sawan was not the first choice for the role; caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najem had proposed two names prior—Samer Younes, who the Higher Judicial Council rejected, and head of the Beirut Criminal Court Tarek Bitar, who declined to take on the role without disclosing reasons for doing so. 

On December 10, 2020, following months of investigation, Sawan charged Diab and former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former Public Works Ministers Ghazi Zeaiter and Youssef Fenianos with criminal negligence. Diab denounced the indictment as unconstitutional, political figures added their voices in agreement, and Minister of Interior Mohamed Fehmi preemptively stated that he would refuse to implement any arrest warrants targeting the former ministers. As political hurdles continued, on February 18, 2021, the Court of Cassation officially removed Judge Sawan from his role following complaints by Zeaiter and Khalil that he was too close to the case; the court ultimately claimed that damage caused by the explosion to Sawan’s Achrafieh apartment would jeopardize his objectivity and that his attempts to prosecute officials with immunities indicated a willingness to act contrary to the law.

Immediately following the dismissal, Najem proposed Judge Younes to take over the investigation; the Higher Judicial Council rejected him once again. Judge Bitar was appointed to the role, which he continues to hold. On July 2, 2021, Judge Bitar sought permission to prosecute high-level political and security officials; he specifically sought to interrogate Diab; to lift immunities for Khalil, Zeaiter, Fenianos, and former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk; to prosecute General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim; and to prosecute State Security Chief Tony Saliba. He additionally opted to begin interrogations around a potential second charge of felony murder, alongside the initial charge of criminal negligence. Since then, there have been attempts to block the lifting of immunity, including one step by MPs that would refer Diab and the four former ministers to the Supreme Council, a judicial body responsible for impeachment, that has been slammed as an “attempt to shield the officials from accountability.”

Separate from the investigation, in December 2020, parliament passed a law (Law No. 196/2020) that would allow monthly benefits to be distributed to families of victims of the explosion. The administrative procedures to submit a file for compensation are arduous and require families to retrieve a dozen official documents (death certificate, police report, forensic report, etc.). Qualifying families are also set to receive lump sum payments of LBP 30 million each (approximately $1,648 on the market rate). As of April 2021, only 14 families had started receiving payments, while 62 other families were still being vetted. The 800 people physically disabled by the blast will be registered with the country’s cash-strapped social security service, the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), for life but will be precluded from receiving the monthly disbursements set to be received by victims’ families. In February, the Ministry of Finance issued Decision 47/1 stipulating that donations and aid received in relation to the explosion would be considered taxable income, despite an October law issued to the contrary.

How have the families of victims, civil society, independent media, and lawyers continued calling for accountability?

It took until October 16, 2020—more than two months after the explosion—for Diab to meet with a delegation of the Beirut Port Blast Martyrs’ Families Committee, one of the largest formal victims’ associations formed after the explosion. They had previously met with Speaker Nabih Berri in September 2020 to demand that the victims of the blast receive the same treatment as soldiers killed in duty in order for their families to receive financial compensation and some social protections. To date, President Aoun has never met with the families of the victims. 

The families of victims of the Beirut Port explosion have been outspoken in leading calls for accountability. One family committee, for example, has focused its efforts on lobbying the international community; the families of firefighters and civil defense workers have also organized. On the fourth day of every month, family groups have organized protests near Parliament, the Justice Palace, and the homes of charged officials and investigative judges. Certain family members, among them Paul Naggear who lost his three-year-old daughter Alexandra to the explosion, have taken on public-facing and political leadership roles. Some family members have been subject to threats, including reportedly from Hezbollah. Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his brother in the explosion, said he received “personal threats” for organizing protests and speaking out against major political leaders.

Social media campaigns centering the issue of accountability have been organized by alternative political parties, activist groups, and other networks and groups. Independent media outlets, including but not limited to Megaphone, have produced accessible explainers and published the stories of victims and survivors, complementing these efforts. Journalists have played an important role in conducting investigative work and keeping the story in the headlines. They have also come under attack for their work; in January 2021, journalist Radwan Mortada was subject to an attempted arrest for his alleged critique of the army’s failure to prevent the explosion. He was charged with “insulting the army and fabricating crimes against the military establishment.” Civil society has continued to play an essential role toward documentation as well; on August 3, 2021, Human Rights Watch released an extensive report investigating the explosion and officials’ culpability based on hundreds of pages of source documents, interviews, and responses from key officials and stakeholders. 

In the legal space immediately following the explosion, the Beirut Bar Association and a team of lawyers put out calls on social media to solicit survivor and victim testimony to build a case against the government in an international court. By the end of September, 1,400 complaints were prepared by the Beirut Bar Association, put together by 400 lawyers, 200 legal aides, and 450 real estate appraisers working pro bono. On October 28, 2020, Khalaf and his team submitted 679 of these complaints to the Public Prosecutor. Separately, in May 2021, the Legal Agenda published an 87-page guide for victims and family members seeking legal remedy, focusing on what legal rights are at stake, the procedures available to leverage toward accountability, and compensation rights.

As the domestic investigation has stalled and been subject to political pressures, support for an independent investigation has grown. On June 16, 2021, a coalition of NGOs, individuals, and families of victims issued a joint letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council calling for the establishment of an international, independent, and impartial investigative mission into the explosion.

What have been the obstacles to accountability for the Beirut Port explosion?

Systemic issues around judicial independence in Lebanon are at the heart of accountability for the Beirut Port explosion, which has also been emblematic of deeper issues surrounding the country’s political economic system with its embedded corruption, clientelism, and socioeconomic fragmentation. The failure of authorities to debate and pass a law governing the independence of the judiciary means that many of the concerns about the independence of actors—such as the Public Prosecutor, the Higher Judicial Council, and the Court of Cassation, who have played significant roles in this story—remain. 

From a legal standpoint, the judicial investigation is mired in legal technicalities that have been politicized to further impunity. For example, the interpretations on whether or not certain immunities can be lifted and how, as well as the fact that there are different types and multiple layers of immunities in place depending on the positioning and roles of the perpetrators, have complicated the pursuit of justice. 

Politically, various members of the political elite have obstructed accountability efforts. For example, a slew of those called in for questioning have refused to cooperate with the official investigation or appear in response to summons. MPs have actively instrumentalized their bylaws to make it more difficult for the investigating judge to request the lifting of immunities. Others signed a petition asking that the Supreme Council be empowered to investigate those implicated by Judge Bitar in the investigation, in a move that would circumvent the judiciary and preclude the later filing of criminal charges.

In practice, the necessary resources and backing to support the investigation have not always been present. A December publication anecdotally indicated that Judge Sawan was given a windowless office in the Hall of Justice that was “so small there was scarcely room for the case files.” He had only two clerks as his staff who took notes by hand. His removal from the case, the consistent refusal of sitting government officials and members of the political elite to support the investigation, and the absence of high-level, top-down messaging by Lebanese authorities on the importance of accountability for the victims of the explosion are all worth noting. 

Where are we one year later?

One year following the Beirut Port explosion, serious impediments to the pursuit of accountability and the independent functioning of the investigation on the legal, political, and practical levels remain. 

While dozens of low-level, mid-level, and informal workers and officials have been charged and arrested—some kept in detention without charge for a year—high-level perpetrators have been allowed to escape accountability and in some cases, remain in power, governing with impunity. Many of those detained are being held in Rihanieh, a military prison with a documented history of torture and human rights violations. Human Rights Watch has documented due process violations in these cases. 

Public compensation schemes for the victims of the explosion are arduous and difficult to navigate. As of April 2021, insurers had paid only 5 percent of the $1.1 billion in insured losses resulting from the explosion as private insurance companies have refused to compensate victims as they await the results of the official, domestic investigation. Because of the close links between the private insurance companies and the Lebanese banks now in crisis, it is widely suspected they do not have the liquidity to pay out claims. 

On the international level, governments and multilateral institutions have made statements emphasizing the importance of accountability; some have taken action more generally on systematic issues like corruption, including the European Union which, on July 30, 2021, announced a legal framework to impose targeted sanctions, including on those involved in stalling accountability. The FBI, upon Lebanon’s request, had previously come to the country and conducted a probe which resulted in an October 2020 report estimating that around one-fifth of the original shipment reportedly exploded that day.

To date, there are fears that there could be hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate “lost” somewhere in the city and unaccounted for.

Special thanks to former TIMEP Nonresident Fellow Kareem Chehayeb for his expert review.