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DUBAI: Two years ago, on August 4, 2020, Ghassan Hasrouty entered his office in the port of Beirut where he had held a stable job for 38 years. He would not go home that day.
At 6:07 p.m. local time, hundreds of tons of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate ignited in Warehouse 12 where Hasrouty worked. He and several of his colleagues were killed instantly.
The third largest non-nuclear explosion ever recorded in history devastated the port and an entire neighborhood of the Lebanese capital.
At least 220 people were killed, more than 7,000 injured and a city already in the throes of economic and political crisis was paralyzed under a mushroom of pink smoke.
“The investigation into the port explosion will be transparent. Take five days, and all those involved will be held accountable,” Mohammed Fahmi, Lebanon’s interior minister at the time, said after the blast.
And yet, two years later, with families still reeling from the loss of their homes, businesses and loved ones, the official investigation by the Lebanese state has stalled.
On July 31, part of the port’s now iconic grain silos collapsed, sending a cloud of dust over the capital, rekindling traumatic memories of the explosion.
Lebanon’s Cabinet recently approved plans for the controlled demolition of the silos, which were badly damaged but miraculously survived the 2020 explosion, retaining much of their strength.
The decision has sparked outrage among Beirut residents and victim support groups who have called for the silos to be preserved until a full and proper investigation into the blast is concluded.
Many blame the explosion and its aftermath on corruption and mismanagement within the Lebanese government.
With a civil war-era status quo from 1975 to 1990 that made those in power effectively untouchable, the investigation turned into little more than a pointing match as it moves from one presiding judge to another.
With this, politicians have effectively ensured complete impunity for officials who have long been wanted for questioning, arrest and prosecution.
Officials potentially involved in the blast have filed more than 25 petitions seeking the dismissal of Judge Tarek Bitar and others involved in overseeing the investigation.
Judge Bitar had charged four former senior officials with willful negligence resulting in the death of hundreds of people in the blast.
In response, some of the suspects filed legal complaints against the judge, which led to the near total suspension of the investigation in December 2021.
Two of these leaders, Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zaaiter, have just been re-elected to parliament.
“Having seen how the authorities reacted after the explosion, I know the road to justice is going to be long. Two years later, all the corrupt state is doing is blocking investigations and evading prosecution. justice,” Tatiana Hasrouty, Ghassan’s daughter, told Arab News.
“This corruption is entrenched and was fully exposed when the Director General of the Internal Security Forces, Major General Imad Othman, was observed in the presence of Ghazi Zaaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil – two men he was supposed to proceed with the arrest warrants against but did nothing instead,” she said.
“My father deserves better than this, and we, as his family, as Lebanese citizens and as those affected by the explosion, deserve to know who did this to us and why. I wouldn’t want that to happen to anyone. No one deserves to go through this kind of pain.
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Desperate and demoralized, survivors and families of victims have turned to courts outside Lebanon in search of justice.
Along with local and international organizations, they called on the UN Human Rights Council to present a resolution at its next session in September to create an independent and impartial “fact-finding mission” to go at the bottom of things.
It is hoped that such an investigation will record the facts, assess the consequences, determine the root causes of the explosion and establish individual responsibilities.
“We have been working with victims and survivors since September 2020 on this request,” Antonia Mulvey, executive director of Legal Action Worldwide and power of attorney for a number of blast survivors, told Arab News.
“While a national inquiry is preferable, we understand that the Lebanese system is very flawed and incapable of telling the truth when it comes to standing up to senior government officials.
“If the resolution is passed, UN members can be deployed on a one-year time-limited mission to support and assist the criminal investigation. The only thing preventing the adoption of the resolution is France and we don’t know why.
Mulvey believes that the statements of French President Emmanuel Macron and his visit to Lebanon following the explosion have, paradoxically, become an obstacle to the administration of justice.
Arriving in Lebanon just two days after the explosion, Macron said that “an international, open and transparent investigation is necessary to prevent things from remaining hidden and doubt from creeping in”.
Many hoped that this call marked a change from the traditional French policy of supporting the Lebanese political class. But now they fear politicians have been thrown off by Macron’s “roadmap” to reform.
Critics of French actions at the UN Human Rights Council say they stand in stark contrast to Macron’s commitments to victims of the port blast.
Mulvey says the situation is intolerable because the slow pace of justice is compounding the grief of survivors and victims’ families.
“One hundred and twenty survivors and victims describe to me how much each day is like torture for them. They cannot move on but have no choice but to move on, especially those who have lost their children,” she said.
“The approaching memorial doesn’t change much when every day is difficult. We have allegations against senior government and security officials. We must keep hope and fight for it. If we don’t, we will still see the same situation in 20 or 30 years. »
Another lawsuit was filed in the US state of Texas by nine Lebanese-American plaintiffs and relatives of blast victims.
Seeking $250 million in compensation, the lawsuit, launched by the Swiss foundation Accountability Now, was brought against US-Norwegian companies, such as TGS, suspected of being involved in bringing explosive materials to the port.
“This lawsuit will help circumvent the muzzling of the Lebanese justice system,” Zena Wakim, co-lawyer for the plaintiffs and chair of the board of Accountability Now, told Arab News.
“Through the powerful discovery tool, victims will uncover the network of corruption that made the explosion possible. Politicians filed impeachment petitions against judges who could have ruled on their motions to dismiss. They filed a complaint against the Lebanese State for the gross negligence of Judge Bitar”, thus freezing the procedure.
Wakim added: “Although the victims all recognized the need to give Lebanese justice a chance, they have now come to the conclusion that justice will never be done in Lebanon. Justice must be sought elsewhere, in any other possible jurisdiction, by all available legal means. »
The contempt shown by the Lebanese authorities towards the survivors and the families of the victims is not only manifested in the attempts to obstruct the investigation. Hasrouty remembers the struggle trying to locate her father’s body, which took almost two weeks after the explosion.
After several days, the Lebanese army canceled the search for the remains of Ghassan Hasrouty and those of others lost in the rubble.
“Nobody talked about it, the people who worked in the silos. The authorities did not want to search for them until we pressured them,” Tatiana Hasrouty told Arab News.
“My brother received maps from my father’s colleagues who survived, and they worked day in and day out trying to locate the bodies.
“We used to go to the port every day waiting for news and visit every hospital. On August 18, my brother received the only official call that his DNA matched a body that had been found. My father and six of his colleagues were under the rubble of the silos.