Hundreds of protesters, including survivors and families of the victims of last year’s Beirut port explosion, demonstrated in the capital Wednesday against the recent suspension of the investigation into the devastating blast.
The delay in the probe is the latest hurdle frustrating and angering many in strife-torn Lebanon in the wake of a catastrophe that killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. No one has been held accountable, including political figures who have failed to participate in the investigation, and there are no answers to what caused highly explosive materials stored in the port for years to ignite on Aug. 4, 2020.
Under close surveillance and a heavy police presence, the demonstrators gathered by the Palace of Justice. They condemned officials for suspending the investigation and attempting to remove the probe’s leading investigator, Judge Tarek Bitar – moves that families and survivors say is political obstruction. A court has to rule on whether he can continue his work.
Justice Bitar was forced to suspend his inquiry after a former interior minister, Nohad Machnouk, who was wanted for questioning on suspicion of negligence, filed a legal challenge against the judge. Mr. Machnouk has accused him of bias and has requested that he be dismissed from the case.
He is the second judge to lead the investigation. The first, Fadi Sawan, was removed after similar legal manoeuvres by senior officials he had accused of negligence that led to the explosion.
Rights groups and local media investigations revealed that most of Lebanon’s senior leadership and security agencies knew of the nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate and did little to protect residents of Beirut against it.
Protesters held up portraits of loved ones they lost in the deadly explosion. Yusra Abu Saleh, 60, was among the demonstrators in the crowd, holding a photo of her 20-year-old son, Ibrahim Amin. She wore a mask that said “we won’t forgive, we won’t forget.” Her eyes welled with tears as she talked about her son. “He was an angel, he was a very good person … he never did anything wrong to anyone” she said.
Ms. Abu Saleh recalled the day her son was killed. She said he worked at the wheat silos at the port, and on the day of the explosion, he finished his shift and was at home having lunch when he was called back to work some overtime. The blast happened an hour later. He was found five days later under the debris of the wheat silos, she said.
“My heart has melted since that day,” she said tearfully. Ms. Abu Saleh said she was at the protest to fight for justice, to keep the investigation going and to support the judge and his mission.
“I want justice for my son and for all the victims. … We are waiting for justice and seeking justice, nothing more.”
Standing nearby in the sun, Fatima Harb, 58, held a photo of her 40-year-old son, Mohammad Tlais.
“We’re here to stress to keep working on this case, to keep work on this case and never let it die,” she said. Speaking through tears, Ms. Harb said the year has been terrible. But justice would mean she would know who killed her son. He had a five-year-old daughter and four-year-old son.
“Our politicians are criminals. We want them to stand by us and help us. We want justice, nothing else.”
At one point in the afternoon, the protest became tense. Some chanted against Hezbollah. And a few people shook the entrance of the ministry of justice. A man climbed on top of a guard post outside the entrance and started yelling obscenities as police watched. Some family members of victims left, saying that they didn’t want to be there because the protest became political.
Before leaving, Mireille Khoury, 50, showed The Globe and Mail a photo on her phone of her son’s room after he was killed, saying the walls collapsed on him in his room. “They killed him in his own home.” Her son, Elias, was 15 years old.
“By the way, he wanted to go to Canada for his studies,” she said, saying he wanted to go to university to study architecture.
Aya Majzoub, Human Rights Watch Lebanon researcher, said the government’s response to the port blast has been “woefully inadequate.”
She said after the explosion, it was volunteers who picked debris off the streets and rebuilt homes and helped settle people into temporary accommodation, all while Lebanese authorities were completely absent. Now, instead of supporting families who are seeking justice, the political class has come together to “delay, obstruct and undermine the investigation,” she said.
“They’ve shielded all high-level individuals from accountability,” she said, adding now they are using legal means to get rid of a judge who showed he was ready to fight the political establishment.
Human Rights Watch, along with other rights groups, survivors and families of victims have been calling on members of the UN Human Rights Council to establish an international, independent and impartial investigation, including a one-year fact-finding mission, into the explosion.
Ms. Majzoub said there have been multiple legal challenges filed against Justice Bitar by former ministers who are trying to argue that he is not neutral and should be replaced. However, she said it’s just a ploy to delay the investigation.
Politicians interfering and shielding themselves from accountability is nothing new in Lebanon, she said.
“This is how politics has been done here for decades. What’s different now is that the families of the victims are united, they protest every month, they’re keeping this issue alive.”
With reports from The Associated Press
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