Beirut, Lebanon – The Lebanese investigator overseeing a probe into the August Beirut explosion that killed more than 200 people is winding down his investigation without accounting for the responsibilities of top-level political and security officials.
Judicial Investigator Fadi Sawan is waiting for the arrival of a report by French investigators within two weeks before he moves to the process of preparing an indictment, a senior judicial source told Al Jazeera. The indictment will draw from a pool of 25 people arrested in connection with the blast, including low- and mid-level administrative and security officials, the source said.
Those detained include current and former customs chiefs Badri Daher and Shafik Merhi, former port director Hassan Koraytem, Abdel Hafiz Kaissi, director of land and maritime transport at the public works ministry, which nominally oversees the port, and Anthony Salloum, head of military intelligence at the port.
A second judicial source said the charges include “willful negligence that led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians and injury of others”, and “causing massive destruction to public and private property”.
“The first charge means this was intentional negligence, in the sense that they knew the dangers and they either did nothing or were slow to do anything, even as all reports indicated this was an explosive substance,” the second source said.
The maximum sentence under these charges would be five years in prison, the source said.
In addition to the more than 200 killed, upwards of 6,500 people were injured and hundreds of thousands left homeless in the explosion, which officials say was fueled by some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate left at the port for nearly seven years.
Sawan had called in 48 people as “witnesses” throughout the investigation, including current and former ministers of public works, finance and justice, as well as the General Security Director Abbas Ibrahim and State Security Director Tony Saliba.
“This means they weren’t charged, no one is legally pursuing them, they basically come in to drink a cup of coffee and chat, though of course they still shouldn’t lie,” explained Nizar Saghieh, the founder of watchdog group Legal Agenda.
Official correspondence between various branches of government, the judiciary and security officials show the president, prime minister, top security officials, members of the judiciary and more than a half-dozen ministers knew the large amount of explosives were at Beirut’s port but failed to take action.
But none of these top officials is officially considered suspects in the crime.
Sawan has reportedly considered ministers and presidents outside his jurisdiction because of legal immunity – an interpretation that Saghieh said was “ludicrous”.
“Immunity applies to political acts carried out during time in office – not a massive explosion that destroys the capital city and kills hundreds. Where is the public interest in this?”
French to investigate
Lebanon’s top prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, who works directly with Sawan on the investigation, told Al Jazeera a French judicial team along with technical and security experts will arrive in Lebanon in January to conduct their own investigation into the blast, owing to the fact that several French citizens were killed in the explosion. He did not elaborate.
The second source said the French judicial delegation’s work would be facilitated to the extent that “it does not conflict with the Lebanese investigations and does not constitute a confiscation of the judicial investigator’s decisions”.
Caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najem told Al Jazeera she had no new information on the investigation, but confirmed Sawan was waiting to receive all foreign expert reports.
A French embassy spokesperson said they could not comment on the matter because of the ongoing investigation.
Test for the judiciary
Victims of the blast have since the beginning pushed for top-level officials to be held accountable, with many seeing the massive explosion as a direct result of the corruption that the Lebanese ruling elite have fostered at the port – and throughout state institutions – over decades.
But it appears low-level appointees will be the only ones to face some measure of accountability.
Melhem Khalaf, the head of the Beirut Bar Association elected last year on an independent ticket, said on Wednesday the investigation must be in-depth and explore the “hierarchy of responsibilities” for the crime.
The Beirut Bar Association on Wednesday said it had filed 697 lawsuits in the names of the families of victims, those wounded and those otherwise affected by the blast, in a renewed push for accountability.
“The judiciary today has an opportunity to give us confidence and restore confidence to people who no longer trust anyone. This is an opportunity to say that there is accountability again,” Khalaf said after filing the lawsuits.
Saghieh warned the delay in filing lawsuits on behalf of the victims – nearly three months after the blast – was an issue in and of itself.
“This means that victims have until now not been represented in the investigation. That’s totally unacceptable – how is it possible for the investigation to seek accountability for them when they are completely absent from the process?” he said.
Saghieh said this merely adds to the previous evidence of due process issues in the investigation that led Legal Agenda, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, among others, to warn it would fail to bring justice for the victims.
‘Worst fears coming true’
In the days after the blast, the probe was overseen by a joint political-security committee, including the prime minister, ministers and heads of security agencies – a number of whom were themselves tied to the conditions that led to the blast.
Local news channel Al Jadeed documented an adviser to then-public works minister Michel Najjar removing stacks of documents from the ministry days later. It is unclear if this was ever investigated.
The investigation was on August 10 transferred to the Judicial Council, an exceptional court that issues verdicts that are not subject to appeal.
Sawan was the justice minister’s third choice for lead investigator at the council, after the first candidate – seen as largely independent from political pressure – was rejected by a higher judicial council appointed by the executive branch, and the second candidate bowed out.
No justifications were given.
Sawan, an investigative judge at the military tribunal, is seen as close to the security establishment and has been accused of bowing to political interference in the past.
Meanwhile, public prosecutor Oueidat’s sister, Rola, is married to former public works minister Ghazi Zeaiter, who was nominally in charge of overseeing Beirut’s port for nearly three years, during which the explosive material sat there.
Despite this clear conflict of interest, Oueidat has refused to recuse himself from the investigation.
Saghieh said the worst fears of victims and watchdog groups appeared to be coming true.
Once Sawan issues his indictment, “It will define and outline the borders of the whole story,” making it difficult for new evidence against other suspects to be added, and narrowing the case down.
Even accountability on an administrative level has been elusive: President Michel Aoun has refused to sign decrees dismissing Daher, Koraytem and Kaissi, claiming the decision required a vote of the cabinet.
Daher is backed by Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement party, while Koraytem is seen as a loyalist of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.