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The August 4 Blast Investigation: Between Political Sabotage and Public Despair

August 4 Blast Investigation
This aerial view shows smoke rising from the heavily damaged grain silos in Beirut’s blast-hit port, on July 29, 2022, days before Lebanon marks two years since the August 4, 2020 explosion that ripped through the capital, killing at least 200 people. AFP

Dana Hourany

Destroyed, charred, and neglected, the Beirut port grain silos stand testament to the devastating explosion that occurred on August 4, 2020, killing over 200 people and leaving over 7000 injured.

Two years later and people are still reliving the trauma. In early July a fire broke out at the silos, with no official explanation and lukewarm action. The fire was blamed on remnants of wheat still kept in the silos that began fermenting under the blazing July sun.

Efforts to stamp out the blaze by firefighters and civil defense volunteers have been ineffective. On Sunday, two days before the second anniversary of the catastrophic explosion that devastated parts of the city, a segment of the grain silos at the Beirut port collapsed.

Authorities released warning statements to nearby residents, instructing them to wear masks and close their windows; Environment Minister Nasser Yassin stated that while officials were unsure whether other portions of the silos would collapse, the southern section remains more secure, according to Reuters.

The fate of the silos has been caught between the government’s desire to demolish and subsequently rebuild the site, and the victims’ families’ determination to preserve the memory of their loved ones killed in the explosion.

Despite all efforts, the site continues to serve as a reminder of the government’s failure to bring justice.

According to legal and political analysts, absence of accountability is symptomatic of an ingrained culture of impunity, which is tied to the public’s growing hopelessness and incapacity to achieve outcomes.

What happened to the August 4 investigation?

The fifty-year-old port housed 2,750 tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate, which caught fire and detonated in one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions on August 2020.

The Lebanese government pledged a probe days after the blast, with a five-day deadline pending results. However, the investigation remains in limbo two years later.

The case was initially assigned to 60-year-old judge Fadi Sawan, who was recused in February 2021 by the Supreme Court. The ruling was affected in part by Judge Sawan’s home being destroyed in the explosion, which raised questions about his impartiality.

Prior to his recusal, Sawan had charged two former Lebanese ministers, Ghazi Zaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil as well as former Prime Minister Hassan Diab and former minister Youssef Fenianos with “criminal negligence causing the death and injury of hundreds of people.”

Zaiter and Khalil refused to appear before Lebanon’s judicial investigator as part of criminal proceedings, in turn submitting a request to remove Sawan because of “legitimate suspicions” regarding his neutrality.

The aforementioned former ministers, backed by the Amal Movement, were reelected as members of parliament in the May 2022 elections and once again enjoy political immunity. On June 7, they were elected to the parliamentary committee for administration and justice.

Zeiter and Khalil continue to refuse to attend interrogation hearings and – alongside other suspects – have filed lawsuits against the new case’s lead, Judge Tarek Bitar.

The investigation has been suspended since December 2021. Judge Bitar can only resume work once Amal affiliated Finance Minister, Youssef Khalil, signs a decree to appoint six chamber presidents to the Court of Cassation, which would make up the court’s plenary assembly.

Political and sectarian tactics to delay accountability

Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer with the Legal Agenda, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization located in Beirut that is monitoring the probe, told Fanack that the government and suspected high officials have been using numerous sabotage strategies to avoid accountability for the tragedy.

A main ploy to turn public opinion against Bitar has been to defame and discredit his work, says Frangieh. They accused him of being politicized, sectarian, and discretionary.

“Zeiter and Khalil made it seem like they were targeted primarily for being from the Amal Movement. Hassan Diab, the former Prime Minister, made it seem like it was the Sunni post of the premiership that was targeted,” Frangieh said. “However there is clear evidence against them and all suspects vary in sects and political backgrounds.”

Although no one from Lebanon’s other major Shiite party, Hezbollah, was charged in the investigation, its Secretary-General, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused the judge of having political motives and “not wanting to reveal the truth.”

Hezbollah shares close ties with Amal. Local media has reported that Wafic Safa, the head of Hezbollah’s security apparatus, allegedly sent a threat to Judge Bitar saying, “we have had enough of you; we will go to the end of the legal path, and if that does not work, we will remove you by force.”

What can be done?

A few weeks after the accusations, and only two days into Hezbollah’s ministerial boycott of the country’s cabinet sessions, fatal riots erupted in Beirut’s Tayyouneh neighborhood. In a manner reminiscent of the Lebanese civil war, supporters of the Christian political party, the Lebanese Forces, fought against members of the Shiite Muslim parties, Hezbollah and Amal.

Frangieh recognizes that the path to justice is arduous; the culture of impunity has been a major impediment to justice in the country for decades.

“We’re establishing a new culture of accountability that didn’t exist previously. Currently, we must maintain pressure on the government to appoint judges to the court of cessation, and new legislative reforms are required to prevent politicians from exploiting their defense privileges,” the lawyer said.

These reforms, according to Frangieh, would limit the number of lawsuits allowed per politician, as well as their ability to suspend the investigation; a deadline would be set for the courts in charge; and reforms ensuring the independence of the judiciary would better protect judges from political interferences and pressures.

Although victims’ families hold a march on the fourth of every month, the number of activists who join them in solidarity has declined. And it is for this reason that many families feel alone.

Tracy Naggear, mother of 3-year-old port blast victim Alexandra Naggear, said in a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, “we [the victims’ families] are alone, we feel alone… we will not get justice in Lebanon, it is impossible.”

However, Frangieh argues that keeping the issue alive, while spreading correct information on accountability, supports efforts to block political sabotage.

“This is a national crisis that has become political and sectarian. The blast did not discriminate among its victims, and it is critical that this narrative be imprinted in our collective memory,” Frangieh said.

A disillusioned society

Karim Safieddine, a political activist and member of the Mada political network, told Fanack that keeping street protests alive has grown increasingly difficult given a growing sense of disillusionment among the people.

“It’s not that people care less about the August 4 explosion, it’s that there’s a growing sense of despair toward what tools reap results,” Safieddine said. “Voting and lobbying are other tools that people have been resorting to.”

According to Safieddine, the persistent sense of despair has pushed some individuals to recover their support for their different sectarian groups. Fearing Hezbollah’s expanding dominance, anti-Hezbollah supporters favored the Christian Lebanese Forces party for example among other opposing groups.

“We need to create new political movements and structures that present the people with tangible solutions and options that allow them to retain hope away from the deception of establishment parties,” Safieddine said.

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