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Judiciary Lebanon

Lebanon judiciary can handle Beirut explosion probe: Minister – Al Jazeera English

Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon’s caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najem says there is ample reason to distrust Lebanon’s judiciary, but last week’s Beirut explosion is a “chance” for this vital institution to earn public trust by holding those responsible accountable.

Many have cast doubt on the ability of the country’s weak judicial authorities to carry out a full and transparent investigation into the devastating explosion that killed more than 170 people and wounded some 6,000 others. Dozens are still missing.

“Much of the criticism is warranted due to the slow pace of work and some politicisation, but this case is a chance for the Lebanese judiciary to prove they can do their jobs and win back the confidence of the people,” Najem told Al Jazeera.

Public pressure and the international coverage of the explosion would also likely push matters in the right direction, she said.

“It’s going to be hard for them to do things like they were done in the past.”

The 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that blew up on August 4 were kept at Beirut’s port for nearly seven years with the eventual knowledge of many top political and security officials – yet nothing was done to prevent such a disaster from happening.

Those who have called for an international investigation include French President Emmanuel Macron and prominent rights groups, as well as many survivors and relatives of the victims.

“We’re not in a position today that allows us to give a chance to the judiciary,” Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of research, told Al Jazeera.

“When you look at the judiciary’s track record in the past with regards to justice in general and all the grave violations the Lebanese people have endured, there’s just no trust with something of this magnitude.”

Najem countered: “My starting point is always the Lebanese judiciary because I don’t want to create a system where every time there is an important issue I go to the international. We can use international experts but my role is to try to improve the judiciary here.”

Investigation ‘already internationalised’

Najem said the investigation had already brought in international experts, notably French police officers and forensic specialists, to investigate the site of the explosion.

Marie-Claude Najem

Marie-Claude Najem [File: Reuters]

The involvement of the French public prosecution was due to the existence of French casualties, she said, giving the investigation an international angle. French Ambassador Bruno Foucher, in a tweet, went as far as calling the French involvement “a guarantee of impartiality in the investigations and of speed”.

Investigations initially proceeded under the military court, and 19 people were arrested including the current and former customs chiefs and the head of the Beirut port authority.

The judiciary is due to interrogate four former public works ministers – nominally in charge of overseeing the port – on Friday.

Debris and damaged vehicles are seen in the port area, after a blast in Beirut, Lebanon August 11, 2src2src. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

Debris and damaged vehicles are seen in the port area, after a blast in Beirut, Lebanon [Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters]

In its last session before Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced its resignation on Monday, the cabinet referred the investigation to the judicial council.

The council is the highest court in Lebanon, reserved for cases deemed to affect national security, such as the assassination of former president-elect Bashir Gemayel during the country’s 1975-90 civil war.

Maalouf said the court “lacks transparency and the ability to follow the judicial process”.

While Najem had proposed a name for a judicial investigator at the council who would take over the investigation once appointed, the country’s Higher Defence Council turned down her choice on Wednesday, without publicly providing an explanation.

At the time of publishing, no investigator had yet been selected.

Allocating responsibility

Najem said there were two forms of responsibility in the case, political and legal.

“We carried out our political responsibility by resigning,” she said. “The legal responsibility is to show who should have done something about it, who was supposed to stop it, rather than who knew about it.”

Her ministry was informed of the presence of the ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut’s port on July 27 – just over a week before the explosion took place. But Najem said she was not responsible – her ministry was not concerned with the matter given that there was a case related to the dangerous cargo already in Lebanon’s courts.

“It is not within my powers to interfere,” she said.

Najem added that she understood that people wanted more than accountability; that they wanted revenge from top officials who knew the highly explosive material – used in bombs and fertilisers – was there for so many years but failed to act.

But she said energy should be focused on first holding people legally accountable, then changing the country’s byzantine bureaucracy, public administration – and eventually the political system that enables such disasters to occur.

“To where this case will eventually go, no one can know,” she said. “The only thing I can say today, as minister of justice, is that I want justice to be done. I want the truth to be told to the Lebanese people and I want the people responsible to pay for it.

“Not out of revenge, but legally speaking – just like in any other country in the world.”

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Lebanon President

Lebanon president: Beirut explosion either due to negligence or missile, bomb – USA TODAY

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Lebanese activist Ralph Baydou walks through the devastation in Beirut, Lebanon as civilians help to clean up after the explosion.

USA TODAY

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said Friday there are two possible causes of Tuesday’s explosion that killed nearly 150 people – either negligence or “external intervention” by a missile or bomb.

He also rejected the United Nations human rights commission call for an international investigation.

It’s believed that the blast occurred when a fire ignited 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port. The cause of the initial fire is unknown.

Aoun said Friday that he asked France for satellite images to see if there were warplanes or missiles in the air at the time of the blast. This differs from the main narrative of recent days, which focused on investigating Lebanese port and customs officials for negligence.

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Also Friday, Lebanon’s state news agency said investigative Judge Ghassan Khoury placed chief of the customs department Badri Daher under arrest. Daher said he warned officials about the ammonium nitrate numerous times over the years.

IN-DEPTH: Before and after images of the Beirut blast site

Aoun told journalists that he received information weeks ago about the dangerous material and “immediately ordered” military and security officials to take care of it. Aoun’s comments were the most senior confirmation that top politicians had been aware of the stockpile.

“The material had been there for seven years, since 2013. It has been there, and they said it is dangerous, and I am not responsible,” said Aoun, who took office in 2016. 

At least 10 times over the past six years, authorities from Lebanon’s customs, military, security agencies and judiciary raised alarm that a massive stockpile of explosive chemicals was being kept with almost no safeguard at the port in the heart of Beirut, newly surfaced documents show, according to the Associated Press.

‘A titanic job’

Aoun said the Lebanese government’s investigation into the cause of the explosion is concentrating on 20 people. Port officials have been put under house arrest. 

Misinformation on social media blamed Israel, but Israeli officials have denied any involvement and have offered aid to Lebanon.

France’s No. 2 forensic police official, Dominique Abbenanti, said Friday the explosion “appears to be an accident” but that it’s too early to know. France, which has close ties to its former colony, sent 22 investigators.

French police could question witnesses or suspects, said Eric Berot, chief of a unit involved in the investigation. For now, the French team is dividing up zones to cover with their Lebanese counterparts and will use drones to study the area.

“The zone is enormous. It’s a titanic job,” Berot said. The investigation is complicated by  “the Lebanese situation,” he said, referring to the political and economic crisis.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump called it a “terrible attack” based on the suspicions of U.S. generals he did not name. However, Defense Secretary Mark Esper later said it was likely an accident.

Ammonium nitrate

Tuesday’s explosion had the force of at least 500 tons of TNT, according to a U.S. government source, who was not authorized to speak publicly. The estimate was based on the widespread destruction, said the source, who has experience with military explosives.

REPORTER IN BEIRUT:Forced to bury a dog that made ‘dystopia more bearable’

The blast caused carnage over a 6-mile radius and was felt more than 100 miles away.

Ammonium nitrate has been linked to past industrial accidents, including explosions at a fertilizer plant in Texas in 2013, a Chinese port in 2015 and many others. 

COULD IT HAPPEN HERE?US ports safer but not immune to disaster

It was also used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when a truck bomb containing 2.4 tons of fertilizer and fuel oil killed 168 people in a federal building. It’s a common fertilizer that’s highly explosive.

Storage is critical. Left unchecked, ammonium nitrate can be contaminated by industrial elements such as fuel oil. The chemical can also decompose on its own, generating heat.

An explosion of ammonium nitrate releases gases, including nitrogen dioxide, which is orange or reddish in color.

Beirut disaster videos show a gray cloud rising from the port, in what appears to be a large industrial fire. A building explodes, creating an orange-reddish cloud, followed closely by a white mushroom cloud as a shock wave hits.

Rescue and recovery

The government estimated 300,000 people – more than 12% of Beirut’s population – had to leave homes damaged by the blast. Many have since returned or are staying with loved ones. Officials estimate the explosion caused $10 billion to $15 billion in losses.

On Friday, rescuers continued pulling bodies from the wreckage.

“Our experience shows that we can find people alive until up to 72, 75 or 80 hours after an explosion or an earthquake, so for now we are still in time and we cling on to this hope,” said Col. Vincent Tissier, head of the French rescue team.

Non-governmental organizations in Lebanon before the explosion were already struggling to provide the aid needed to the country. HOPE worldwide is one of those organizations that has been providing assistance to the country since last October. 

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In addition to providing and distributing food, the HOPE worldwide’s Lebanon branch is preparing to renovate and rebuild homes that suffered damaged from the explosion. 

“This is as much as we can (do) as an NGO,” Mofid Tohme, the president of HOPE Worldwide’s Lebanese branch, said. 

Thousands of Lebanese citizens filled the streets in the days after the blast, bringing their own brooms, shovels and other materials to help clean up the streets of Beirut, according to Lebanese activist Ralph Baydou. 

“This is what also what is keeping the state alive,” Baydou said. “Us, the Lebanese citizens stepping in instead of the State.”

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A woman gave birth to a boy in near darkness at a hospital in Beirut, Lebanon hospital moments after an explosion rocked the city on August 4.

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Contributing: Dennis Wagner, Sarah Elbeshbishi, Anne Godlasky, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2020/08/07/beirut-explosion-due-negligence-missile-says-lebanon-president/3317722001/

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