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The struggle isn't over for Beirut blast victims

May 25, 2022
topics: Transparency and Corruption
by: Pierre Sagnier
located in: Lebanon
tags: Beirut explosion, corruption, Lebanon, UN Human Rights Council

With the Lebanese government actively sabotaging the probe into the Beirut port blast, many of the victims press for an international investigation.

Almost two years have passed since a huge blast in Beirut's port ravaged large swathes of the city on 4 August 2020, and the situation remains gloomy for the thousands of victims of that catastrophe, qualified as the largest non-nuclear explosion in history. More than 200 people were killed as a result of the explosion.

The victims reported feeling abandoned and even ill-treated by the authorities of Lebanon - a country that has been sinking further into simultaneous economic, political and social crises.

"What can I expect from a failed state?" says Joseph Ghafari, who was practicing sports outdoors in Beirut's district of Al Ashrafiya when thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate stored for almost seven years in the port without necessary precautions deflagrated at 6:08 p.m. that day.

The area is in an elevated location of the city but faces the port, and so the damages were devastating. A wall fell on Ghafari, injuring him so severely that his right leg eventually had to be amputated.

"The surgeries I had were covered by the State, but I had to pay $6,000 for the pins so they didn’t amputate above the knee," Ghafari explains. "In addition, so far I have paid almost $45,000 just for treatment, physiotherapy and the medicines I have to bring from abroad." Ghafari has filed for reimbursement from the state, "But nobody paid any attention to me, so everything was at my own expense."

Alas, that wasn’t the only loss Ghafari suffered. His home and car were also destroyed in the blast, and five of his relatives were hurt. Due to the astronomical medical expenses, he hasn’t been able to repair his home, for which he has not received any compensation from the state, and is now living with his wife and daughter in a small rented flat.

Before the explosion, Ghafari worked in the mornings as a civil servant and dedicated the afternoons to his own shop, but due to his injuries he had to abandon the latter. "Now I only live on the government salary, which does not even cover my medications," Joseph regrets.

OVERWHELMING FIGURES

Joseph is one of the 7,000 people wounded that day, of whom at least 150 acquired a physical disability, one of the over 300,000 people left homeless by the blast, which damaged over 77,000 apartments. 

"The compensation payments for people who have lost their homes have been very small and they are still distributing some of these payments today, even when the value of the currency has depreciated significantly," says Aya Majzoub, a Lebanon researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. Since the end of 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost nearly 90 percent of its value.

"Besides, we haven’t been able to see any logic to the way that the aid has been distributed, so some people have gotten some aid, some people haven’t, even though they lived in the same building," Majzoub adds. "The amounts vary from apartment to apartment and the biggest problem is that, anyway, the value of the aid given by the Lebanese Government is very small and nothing in comparison with the needs after the blast."

"People who have sustained injuries and permanent disabilities in the blast have also been neglected," she goes on. In addition to the difficulty of getting the cost of their treatments covered, “they have found that the medicines that they needed in Lebanon have become almost impossible [to obtain] given the shortages that the country has faced." 

Lebanese institutions "try to separate themselves from the explosion, as if for them nothing really happened," says Paul Naggear, who lost his three-year-old daughter Alexandra in the explosion. "There are actually no apologies given, there was no reach-out to the victims and families of victims for condolences or support. They’re really trying to distance themselves and I think them being a mafia regime - they did very well," he claims.

"A CONSTANT FIGHT for justice IN AN UNFAIR COUNTRY"

Naggear explains that since that tragic August evening, the victims have been battling incessantly: "At least for those of us who chose to fight, it’s been just every day: what’s the next protest that you’re going to? Who are we meeting next to advance our case? What is the next operation that we’re planning against this and that person to make the case advance? It’s been a constant fight for justice in an unfair country."

Naggear is part of the August Fourth Collective, which brings together residents of the area most affected by the blast and integrates NGOs and various opposition movements. They have been coordinating with two other victims’ organisations: one formed by port workers and another established by the families of 10 firefighters who went to the port when the fire broke out in the wharehouse where the ammonium nitrate was stored and were killed by the explosion. 

Naggear, however, says he would've liked to see more support for victims from the Lebanese public: "The estimate is that 300,000 people were affected by the blast, and yet when we do protest we mobilise around 50-60 people. So there’s no real engagement. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the economic crisis or that people are completely exhausted."

In 2021, HRW conducted a thorough investigation into the incident based on hundreds of papers and official documents, as well as several interviews with government, security and judicial officials and investigative journalists, among others, and concluded that the explosion was caused by the actions and omissions of senior Lebanese officials.

responsibility lies at the top of the state

"Not only were officials and positions of responsibility aware of the ammonium nitrate in the port but were also aware of the danger that it posed to the public safety and was in their mandate to act to protect the public from that danger and they failed to do so," Majzoub points out.

Among the main entities and individuals responsible, she adds, are the ministries of Finance and Public Works and Transport, the Lebanese Army, the Defense Council, Hassan Diab - who was prime minister at the time, and President Michel Aoun.

Nonetheless, none of them - or any other high officials - have been charged thus far. Since the beginning of the investigation into the blast, Lebanese officials, ministers and members of parliament have been constantly recusing the judge and halting the procedures when summoned to be questioned.

"We really think that the regime in place is guilty, but they are trying to find loopholes or sneaky ways into the legal system to stop [the investigations]. We live in a country governed by a criminal mafia, so what do you expect?" claims Paul Naggear.

INVESTIGATION boycotted

The first lead investigator, judge Fadi Sawwan, was removed in February 2021 and his successor, Tarek Bitar, has been unable to question the ministers, military commanders and senior officials suspected to be responsible for the blast.

The recurring delays in the investigation have eroded the hopes of victims to know the truth and hold those responsible accountable.

"Every month that goes by is harder and harder," says Sarah Copland, who lost her two-year-old son Isaac in the blast. Copland a UN worker who had been living in Beirut for one year when the explosion took place. The Lebanese government "initially announced that the investigation would be done in five days," she remembers. Almost two years later, the investigation has been suspended once again since February and has no resumption date in the offing.

Despite being seven months pregnant and sustaining injuries by the explosion, Copland and her husband returned to his country, Australia, only ten days after the blast. "We lived through this massive explosion and I never dealt with it afterward, I just moved back to Australia. I never went and saw the destruction. So it’s too hard for me to comprehend what happened and I’m still processing a lot of that," she admits.

"Honestly, I would receive nothing from the Lebanese government," says Copland, who has only received a phone call of condolence from the Lebanese authorities one year after the blast. But like the rest of the victims, she wants to find out the truth and demands accountability for those responsible for the tragedy.

That said, she expects nothing from the Lebanese judicial process: "I understand that a lot of Lebanese people want to put their faith in the domestic investigation because they need to know that their judicial system is functioning. But I have no hope that it is going to yield any result."

rising demand for INTERNATIONAL INVESTIGATION

Copland is currently working with the NGO Legal Action Worldwide in pursuit of an independent international investigation by the UN Human Right Council.

Legal Action Worldwide has been working for some years in Lebanon, providing legal assistance and representation to victims and survivors of human rights violations and abuses.

Drawing on past experience, Antonia Mulvey, the organisation's executive director, is convinced that "the Lebanese justice system is incapable of adequately responding when there are serious allegations made against individuals from the State or State institutions." 

"Even if you look back to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1999), you’ll find that there is only one prosecution in relation to those crimes during that period and since that time," Mulvey stresses. Victims’ families, she adds, "have lived in hope that the domestic investigation would bring justice even if they were very skeptical, but each day it brings more despair."

"International law is clear: when domestic remedies are unavailable or exhausted and do not provide legal remedies to individuals, they must turn to international law," Mulvey explains. Legal Action Worldwide is therefore trying to convince member states of the UN Human Right Council to table in their next meeting in June a resolution to establish an independent UN fact-finding mission to investigate the violations and abuses of international human rights law in the context of the Beirut explosion and to identify those primarily responsible.

"This would not only support a domestic investigation, if the domestic investigation were to resume itself, but it will allow also potential other legal remedies to be undertaken in other jurisdictions: for example those who had individuals killed from Germany or from France," Mulvey points out.

Paul Naggear, like many of the victims, is skeptical about gathering enough support to get the fact-finding mission approved: "The bet on the international community for me is kind of lost. I don’t really think that we can rely on that anymore."

Mulvey is well aware of the difficulty to gather the 24 out of 47 necessary votes for such a resolution in the council, especially considering the numerous political interests at stake. Yet she argues that it is impossible "to build a new Lebanon on foundations of complete impunity," and that such an investigation "will also get to contribute towards the peace and security in Lebanon and thereby towards the stability within the region."

Image by Bernard Khalil

Article written by:
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Pierre Sagnier
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Lebanon
An employee stands amongst rubble in his damaged office inside the destroyed Lebanon Electricity Company building.
© Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement release white balloons to mark the one-year anniversary of the explosion in Beirut's port.
© Fadel Itani/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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