Families of Beirut port blast victims stage mass sit-in
Families of the victims of the Beirut port explosion staged a mass sit-in to protest at the obstruction of the official investigation that has been in limbo for more than a year.
The investigation into the August 2020 blast has sunk into the murk of Lebanese politics, as suspects including ministers and former prime ministers evade questioning and counter-sue the lead investigator Tarek Bitar.
The Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah and Amal are all pushing for the removal of Bitar to force through the release of suspects, including the head of customs Badri Daher, who are being held in custody.
Families gathered outside the Justice Palace in Beirut on Thursday as members of the Higher Judicial Council attempted to force through Bitar’s replacement.
The motion however failed after two judges, including the council’s president, Suhail Abboud, refused to attend.
William Noun, brother of one of the victims and the families’ spokesman, thanked “the judges who caused the loss of quorum.” He said: “We don’t have a problem with the judges or the court, but with those who are trying to obstruct the investigation. Those who died in the explosion are not numbers and the court is for justice.”
Deputy Melhem Khalaf, former president of the Bar Association in Beirut, told Arab News that the attempt to replace Bitar was “an attempt to mess with the crime of the century and to turn against justice, the judiciary, and the law.”
The protest came a day after victims’ families threw stones at the Justice Palace, shattering the glass of some windows.
Several protesters were summoned for questioning on charges of vandalism and damaging offices. This further enraged the group, who said that they were being treated “as criminals, while they are families of innocent victims.”
Khalaf described the summoning as “a suspicious and unjust act toward the families of the victims who are already abused. We will not allow them to overthrow the case and insult the families of the victims.”
Many Kataeb and reformist deputies, including Sami Gemayel, Waddah Sadek, Elias Hankash and Michel Doueihy, joined the protest in solidarity with the families who were holding pictures of their victims.
Deputy Hankash said: “It’s shameful that the victims’ families are being summoned, while those accused of the crime don’t attend their hearings and consider themselves above the law. They are outsmarting the judiciary. How can they ask the victims’ families to remain peaceful?”
Deputy Ghassan Hasbani, who joined Thursday’s protest, said that “no one can escape punishment no matter how long it takes because right holders are always more powerful.”
The port explosion was caused by 1,750 tons of ammonium nitrate and other explosive material stored in a warehouse. More than 230 people were killed and 6,500 injured as the blast tore through Beirut’s waterfront and nearby neighborhoods.
Bitar had subpoenaed former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, and three former ministers — Ali Hassan Khalil (Finance), Ghazi Zeaiter (Public Works) and Nohad Machnouk (Interior) — to be prosecuted for “possible intentional killing” and negligence.
It is alleged that all knew the ammonium nitrate was stored in unsafe conditions but did nothing to secure it.
Amnesty International said on Thursday that it was “absurd” that no one had been held accountable, more than two years after the disaster.