Beirut, Lebanon – The Lebanese investigator, who oversees an investigation into the explosion in August Beirut, which killed more than 200 people, has closed his investigation without considering the responsibilities of senior political and security officials.
Investigator Fadi Sawan is waiting for a report from French investigators to arrive within two weeks before proceeding to prepare an indictment, a senior Justice source said Al Jazeera. The charges will come from a pool of 25 people arrested in connection with the explosion, including civil servants and low and middle-level security officials, the source said.
Detainees include current and former Customs Chiefs Badri Beim and Shafik Merhi, former Port Director Hassan Koraytem, Abdel Hafiz Kaissi, Director of Land and Sea Transport at the Ministry of Public Works, which nominally oversees the port, and Anthony Salloum, Head of the military secret service at the port.
A second judicial source said the charges included “willful negligence which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians and the harm to others” and “massive destruction of public and private property”.
“The first charge means this was willful negligence in the sense that they knew the dangers and either did nothing or were slow to act, even though all reports indicated that it was an explosive substance,” said the second Source.
The maximum sentence under these charges would be five years in prison, the source said.
In addition to the more than 200 deaths, more than 6,500 people were injured and hundreds of thousands left homeless in the explosion. According to official information, around 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate were fueled in the port for almost seven years.
Sawan had called in 48 people as “witnesses” throughout the investigation, including current and former ministers of public works, finance and justice, as well as the director general of security, Abbas Ibrahim, and the director of state security, Tony Saliba.
“This means that they have not been charged, no one is legally prosecuting them, they come in for a cup of coffee and talk, although of course they still shouldn’t lie,” said Nizar Saghieh, founder of the Legal Agenda monitoring group .
Official correspondence between various branches of government, the judiciary and security officials shows that the President, Prime Minister, senior security officials, members of the judiciary and more than half a dozen ministers knew that the large amount of explosives was in Beirut’s port, but they did did not take action.
But none of these top officials are officially considered suspects of the crime.
Sawan has reportedly viewed ministers and presidents as being outside his jurisdiction because of his immunity – an interpretation that Saghieh described as “ridiculous”.
“Immunity applies to political acts carried out during the tenure – not a massive explosion destroying the capital and killing hundreds. Where is the public interest in it? “
Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a protest in Beirut in September [Bilal Hussein/AP]
Lebanon’s Chief Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, who is working directly with Sawan on the investigation, told Al Jazeera that a French judicial team, along with tech and security experts, would arrive in Lebanon in January to conduct their own investigation into French citizens were killed in the explosion. He didn’t elaborate on it.
The second source said the work of the French judicial delegation would be facilitated in that “it does not conflict with the Lebanese investigation and does not constitute a confiscation of the judicial investigator’s decisions”.
Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najem told Al Jazeera that she had no new information about the investigation, but confirmed that Sawan was waiting for any foreign expert reports.
A spokesman for the French embassy said they were unable to comment on the matter due to the ongoing investigation.
Test for justice
From the start, the victims of the explosion urged that senior officials be held accountable. Many see the massive explosion as a direct result of the corruption that the ruling Lebanese elite in the port – and in all state institutions – has fostered for decades.
However, it appears that only low-level officials will have some level of accountability.
Melhem Khalaf, the head of the Beirut Bar Association, who was elected on an independent ticket last year, said Wednesday the investigation needs to be in-depth and examine the “hierarchy of responsibilities” for the crime.
The Beirut Bar Association said Wednesday it had filed 697 lawsuits on behalf of the families of the victims, the wounded and those otherwise affected by the blast, to reassess them.
“Today, the judiciary has the opportunity to trust people who no longer trust anyone and to restore trust. This is an opportunity to say that accountability has returned, ”Khalaf said after filing the complaints.
Saghieh warned that the delay in filing lawsuits on behalf of victims – almost three months after the explosion – was an issue in itself.
“This means that the victims have not yet been represented in the investigation. This is totally unacceptable – how is it possible for the investigation to obtain accountability for them when they are completely absent from the process? ” he said.
Saghieh said this merely adds to the earlier evidence of litigation issues in the investigation, which led Legal Agenda, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others, to warn that it would not do justice to victims.
“Worst fears come true”
In the days following the explosion, the investigation was overseen by a joint political security committee made up of the prime minister, ministers and the heads of security agencies. Some of them were themselves bound by the conditions that led to the explosion.
The local news channel Al Jadeed documented an advisor to the then Public Employment Minister Michel Najjar, who a few days later removed stacks of documents from the ministry. It is unclear if this was ever investigated.
The investigation was referred to the Judicial Council on August 10, an extraordinary court that issues unappealable judgments.
Sawan was the Justice Minister’s third election to the council’s lead investigator after the first candidate – viewed as largely unaffected by political pressure – was rejected by an executive-appointed senior judicial council and the second was eliminated.
No justifications were given.
Sawan, an investigative judge at the military court, is believed to be close to the security institute and has been accused of bowing to political interference in the past.
Meanwhile, Prosecutor Oueidat’s sister, Rola, is married to former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter, who was nominally responsible for nearly three years overseeing the port of Beirut where the explosive material was located.
Despite this clear conflict of interest, Oueidat has refused to withdraw from the investigation.
Saghieh said the worst fears of victims and watchdog groups seemed to be fulfilled.
Once Sawan releases his indictment, “it will define and outline the boundaries of the entire story,” making it difficult to add new evidence against other suspects and narrow the case down.
Even administrative accountability has been difficult to pin down: President Michel Aoun has refused to sign decrees dismissing Hence, Koraytem and Kaissi, claiming the decision requires a cabinet vote.
Therefore, Aoun and his party of the Free Patriotic Movement are supported, while Koraytem is considered a loyalist to Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.