Lebanon justice minister ‘waiting’ to judge blast probe

Marie-Claude Najm says she is waiting for the results of the probe, just like any other citizen, before she makes her judgement.

The investigation into the explosion has been marked by criticism over the opacity of the process [File: Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon’s caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm said she was unable to judge the course of a probe into the massive August Beirut port explosion that killed 200 because she is unaware of internal details.

Asked in a phone interview with Al Jazeera whether she was confident in the course of the investigation so far, Najm said she would wait to see the results.

“I want the judiciary to do their job properly. I’m unaware of what happens inside, so I’m in the position of someone waiting and eager, as all the Lebanese people are, to see the result.”

The investigation into the August 4 explosion that also injured more than 6,500 and destroyed large parts of Beirut has been marked by criticism from the families of victims and watchdog groups since the outset because of the opacity of the process, the allegedly narrow scope of investigations and conflicts of interest. Organisations including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have said an international investigation would be the only path to justice.

The investigation was on August 10 transferred to the Judicial Council, an exceptional court that issues verdicts that are not subject to appeal. HRW, Amnesty and local watchdog Legal Agenda criticised the decision, saying the court was opaque and did not rise to due process standards.

Najm defended Cabinet’s decision to move the investigation to the Judicial Council.

“This decision allowed the victims – any victim – to participate and be aware of the content of the procedure, and this has been done – many have filed requests and so has the Bar Association. This would not have been possible at the military court,” she said.

Only a small number of victims have so far involved themselves in the process, with the Beirut Bar Association filing 679 lawsuits on behalf of victims, the wounded and their families on Wednesday, nearly three months after the blast.

Since the case was transferred to him, Judicial Investigator Fadi Sawan, the lead investigator, has made no public statement other than brief news published by state media that says nothing more than who he has interrogated. Najm defended Sawan’s silence, saying he was aiming to maintain the secrecy of investigations.

Sawan’s lack of press statements has allowed for the media narrative to be largely based on leaks, a number of which are of dubious veracity.

Sawan was the justice minister’s third choice for lead investigator at the council, after the first candidate was rejected by a higher judicial council appointed by the executive branch. A second candidate said he did not want the job.

Najm said she had attempted to find out why the first candidate – widely seen as strong and independent – was rejected, but the council kept its deliberations secret.

Najm said Sawan was now waiting for reports by foreign experts to arrive in Lebanon before he moved to the process of writing his indictment. “These reports are key to such an investigation because they have technical and scientific means that we don’t have.”

Lebanon has already received a report from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which the Reuters news agency said had been inconclusive in its findings. Najm said the Lebanese investigators “are looking to build a lot on a French report because French experts did a deeper job”.

“This isn’t a small incident, it’s a disaster and I want a proper, deep investigation. So if it takes a bit more time and we get a proper investigation that’s fine,” she said.

Judicial sources told Al Jazeera that low and mid-level administrative and security officials would likely be indicted, rather than higher-ranking political and security officials. This is despite the fact that a number of high-ranking officials including ministers, the president and prime minister were shown to have known of the presence of large amounts of explosive material at Beirut’s port prior to the blast, but failed to address the issue.

Sawan has reportedly considered ministers and presidents outside of his jurisdiction because of legal immunity.

Najm said crimes by ministers and presidents – including treason and failing to carry out professional duties – would have to be tried at the Higher Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers, a body made up of MPs and judges that has never held anyone accountable.

“But it’s as if we’ve decided that there are some specific ministries involved, because they are tied to the port or customs. My view is different: there’s an investigation, it will show the responsibilities of people involved, and then we see which court has the jurisdiction.”

Source: Al Jazeera