Lebanon bungles domestic blast investigation Updated for 2021

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Updated: February 27, 2021

A domestic investigation into the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020 has failed to yield any credible results more than two months later, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday. Political interference coupled with long-standing failings of the judicial system have made a credible and impartial domestic investigation seemingly impossible.

The International Support Group for Lebanon, meeting next week, should urge Lebanese authorities to invite the United Nations to conduct an independent inquiry to determine the causes of and responsibility for the explosion.

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“Everyone in Beirut has had their life turned upside down by the catastrophic explosion that devastated half the city, and they deserve justice for the disaster inflicted on them,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Only an independent, international investigation will uncover the truth about the blast. The International Support Group for Lebanon should not play along with the Lebanese authorities’ pretense that they are able to conduct their own credible investigation.”

On August 10, the Lebanese government referred the Beirut explosion to the Judicial Council, a special court with no appeals process. The judge leading the investigation was appointed in an opaque process shrouded in allegations of political interference, raising serious concerns about the independence of the process.

While foreign investigators – including about 50 French forensic police officers and gendarmes and the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation – have participated in the ongoing domestic investigations at the invitation of the Lebanese authorities, their involvement does not cure the fundamental flaws with the current approach. These foreign experts’ role and their ability to speak publicly about their findings or to criticize attempts to undermine their work are unclear. France and the United States should clarify their role and mandate, and make public any attempts to obstruct justice, Human Rights Watch said.

As of October 13, local media reported that 25 people had been arrested in relation to the case and 30 had been charged. Lebanese authorities have failed to detail the evidence and charges against these individuals, and it is not clear whether they were afforded due process. Not a single minister, former or sitting, has been charged.

In August, 30 UN experts publicly laid out benchmarks for a credible inquiry, noting that it should be “protected from undue influence,” “integrate a gender lens,” “grant victims and their relatives effective access to the investigative process,” and “be given a strong and broad mandate to effectively probe any systemic failures of the Lebanese authorities.” But the domestic investigation into the Beirut blast has failed to meet either international standards for due process or the benchmarks the UN experts identified. Instead, the investigation has centered around administrative port and customs officials, raising concerns that political officials credibly implicated in the blast will escape accountability.

“The responsibility for the Beirut explosion extends far beyond port and customs officials,” Majzoub said. “Any investigation that claims to be impartial would look into the corruption and mismanagement permeating the entire political system, which created the conditions that made the Beirut blast possible.”

Following the explosion, officials traded blame over who was responsible. Court records and official correspondence leaked to the media indicate that many high-level officials, including the president, security officials, and members of the judiciary, were aware of the dangerous stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the port but failed to take action. Reuters quoted an unnamed official source saying that initial investigations “indicate years of inaction and negligence” over the storage of the highly explosive ammonium nitrate.

The domestic investigation’s lack of independence and transparency has led to a widespread loss of public faith in the process, prompting many victims and their families to call for an international investigationHuman Rights Watch, as well as other human rights groups including Amnesty International, have said there should be an international inquiry. Lebanese officials have rejected these calls, and President Michel Aoun described any such investigation as a “waste of time.”

There have been two fires in the Beirut port since the explosion, on September 8 and September 10, prompting many allegations of tampering with the crime scene. The head of the Beirut Bar Association, Melhem Khalaf, told AFP that he was alarmed by the fires, calling them “unacceptable” and added that “preserving the (blast) crime scene was the first thing we asked” of the investigation.

In 2018, the United Nation’s Human Rights Committee expressed concern about the “political pressure reportedly exerted on the Lebanese judiciary, particularly in the appointment of key prosecutors and investigating magistrates, and about allegations that politicians use their influence to protect supporters from prosecution.” These structural weaknesses in the Lebanese system remain obstacles to delivering justice in the current context.

“The Lebanese authorities’ failings over the past two months have shown that an international investigation is the only avenue for the people of Lebanon to get the answers and the justice that they deserve for the Beirut explosion,” Majzoub said. “But it has also underscored the importance and urgency of addressing the structural weaknesses preventing Lebanon’s judiciary from independently and impartially delivering justice.”

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