Ignorantia juris non Excusat (ignorance of the law does not excuse)
I am not going to reiterate the disaster that happened on August 4th, 2020, at the Port of Beirut, that was caused by the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate which had been stored there for more than 6 years, without safety precautions, in deteriorating conditions, and with nobody questioning its presence in such a densely populated area.
But, after that terrible explosion, the President of The Republic promised a transparent investigation into its causes, even while simultaneously refusing the call by the families of the victims of the explosion for an international investigation – which no doubt for him would have circumvented a judicial process that he and his allies controlled, and which could have risked exposing them to criminal negligence.
At that time, Ghassan Oueidat, The Public Prosecutor, recommended that the Cabinet refer the case to the Higher Judicial Council. The Higher Judicial Council is a special court whose decisions are not subject to appeal, and because referrals are made to it on a discretionary basis via a Cabinet decree, it has been a vehicle for political interference for decades.
Eight of the ten members of The Higher Judicial Council are appointed by the Executive Branch of government and since the beginning of the Aoun presidency, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), and their allies, have played a central role in the appointment of these judges.
Therefore, right from the start, the appointment of Judge Sawan as the Judicial Investigator by the Minister of Justice, Marie-Claude Najm, was an opaque process mired in allegations of political interference.
Since the beginning of Judge Sawan’s investigation, very little information was provided to the public about his findings and almost all the information about the status of the case came through media leaks including information about tampering with evidence such as the removal of documents from the public works ministry which oversees the port. This incident was followed by two huge fires in the port on September 8th and 10th, which also prompted many allegations of tampering with the crime scene. When The High Judicial Council failed to take action against these allegations it immediately put in question the investigation’s credibility.
It is obvious that the responsibility for the Beirut explosion extends far beyond the port and customs employees and the inquiry should be addressed to any person who was in a position of responsibility over the last 6 years, to allow for the admission of the explosive material into the country, its inadequate storage and to prevent it from being moved out of harm’s way or even to veto its removal.
Then, on October 13th, local media reported that 25 people had been arrested in relation to the case, and 30 had been charged. But, to this day charges against those arrested have not been made public. The individuals who were arrested are being held in prison cells and the Lebanese authorities have failed to detail any evidence against them. This apparent attempt to make the administrative port and customs workers scapegoats for the investigation shed further doubt on the process which appeared to be attempting to shield higher ranking political officials from prosecution.
Many court records and official correspondence leaked to the media, have indicated that since 2013, a large number of high-level civil servants, including the head of the customs department, had repeatedly circulated official letters saying that the ammonium nitrate in the port posed a grave danger. Customs and security officials wrote to judges roughly every six months asking for the removal of the material. (Those Judges and customs officials have declined to comment on the matter).
In addition, most of Lebanon’s political leadership including the President and the security agencies have admitted to knowing about the stockpile of ammonium nitrate before it ignited on August 4th. On July 20th, a letter prepared by the Prosecutor General Ghassan Oueidat was delivered to Prime Minister Diab and President Aoun by the General Directorate of State Security (which oversees port security), warning them that this could destroy Beirut if it exploded.
This letter summed up the findings of a judicial investigation which had been launched in January this year, and which had concluded that the chemicals needed to be secured immediately – proving that the matter was under examination for 8 months prior to the tragedy and nothing had been done to prevent it.
Notwithstanding his prior knowledge of the impending dangers, President Aoun has denied that he was responsible for the devastating blast, saying that he had no authority over the port and had ordered that action be taken and then admitted that he had never followed up on that request.
The President also added that the previous government had known about the dangerous stockpile which had been confiscated in the port since 2013. It would seem obvious however that if that government was aware of this fact, then his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who was the Minister of Energy at the time that the ammonium nitrate entered the country, would have also known about the presence of these explosive materials.
It is very strange therefore, that The President of The Republic after four years in office, would only find out about this matter three weeks prior to the actual explosion. He is a military man after all, and for him to publicly say to the press at a news conference, that “they said it is dangerous and I am not responsible. I don’t know where it was placed. I don’t even know the level of danger,” is hardly believable or even acceptable.
To make matters worse, now, more than three months into the investigation, not a single minister, former or sitting, has been questioned as a suspect. It was not until last week that Judge Sawan issued four indictments, which appeared random and inadequate, to the former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, and to three former Ministers including two of which who had already been placed on the US’s sanctions list for their involvement in aiding Hezbollah. They have all refused to comply and testify.
The challenge by the political class to Sawan’s latest summons goes to the crux of the matter and is rooted in the attempt to shield people in power and in the different legal interpretations over who has the authority to question ministers and heads of governments.
The High Judicial Council claims to not have the jurisdiction to prosecute sitting or former presidents and ministers. However, The Lebanese Judges’ Association has disputed this reading of the law contending that the crime of killing or causing the death of citizens is not subject to immunity, as it is not directly related to the exercise of duties in office.
The Judicial Council is claiming that this responsibility falls on “The Supreme Council to Prosecute Presidents and Ministers”. However, this body has not yet been fully decreed by Parliament. It is to consist of eight judges and seven deputies.
Last March, after years of stalling on the creation of that council, Parliament elected seven representatives, representing most of the parliamentary blocs, to the membership of “The Supreme Council to Prosecute The Presidents and Ministers”.
However, when it came to selecting the 8 judges to complete the process, Speaker Berri rejected the list of names presented to him by the former president of the High Judicial Council, Judge Jan Fahd.
The fact that these 8 judges were not selected to complete the membership of the Council completely stopped its formation in its tracks – even if it is expected that this procedure will be finished at some point in the future with the new head of the High Judicial Council, Judge Suhail Abboud.
But, in the absence of such a judicial body the responsibility befalls on the High Judicial Council to prosecute those responsible, including very high-ranking members of government.
Let us therefore discuss where the responsibility of this crime of public endangerment and gross negligence leading to the loss of lives, really lies. No matter how much the facts are blurred, and responsibility is deflected, there are some baseline truths that need to be brought to light and used in the pursuit of justice for this terrible case.
Without going into conspiracy theories and speculations about why such huge amounts of ammonium nitrate ended up in Lebanon under very suspicious conditions, I want to focus on how the matter was handled once the ammonium nitrate landed on Lebanese soil. This is the real question that matters when it comes to allocating responsibility for the cause of the death of more than 200 innocent civilians.
Aside from some high-level members of the port authority management, those who are responsible for this terrible act of negligence, are those, over all these years, who were in positions of power and responsibility in government and who must have known about the presence of these explosives – and if they did not know, they should have known. These include presidents and their ministers who worked in the sectors of government relevant to the incident, including: Defense, Security, Energy, Agriculture, Public Health and Safety, and Transportation.
On the Security level, the introduction of potentially explosive chemicals into Lebanon comes under the jurisdiction of the military. Therefore, the chain of command in the Army since 2013, under both General Kahwaggi and General Aoun, should be interrogated and deposed in the process of uncovering the truth about why such a volume of explosive materials was stored in a haphazard way and left to dangerously decompose in an urban area? And as to why they did not transport this hazardous material to a remote location and prevent access to it?
On the leadership level, both Presidents of the Republic since 2013, Michel Sleiman and Michel Aoun are accountable in this matter, including the four Prime Ministers which governed the country since the time that the shipment arrived in 2013 during Najib Makati’s caretaker government and then during the following government of Tammam Salam which came to power in 2014, when two whole year’s passed with nothing done about the presence of the explosive material at the Port of Beirut.
After that, in 2016 following Michel Aoun’s election as President, Saad Hariri became Prime Minister. Three years went by and nothing happened again. As for Hassan Diab’s government, he and the relevant ministers implicated in the probe also need to be interrogated.
At this point, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Lebanese authorities have no intention whatsoever of fulfilling their responsibilities to conduct an effective, transparent and impartial investigation that would reach the people who were in charge this whole time. Political interference coupled with the long-standing failings of the judicial system have made this investigation seemingly impossible.
Finally, after the latest much criticized and politically aggressive move by Judge Sawan to selectively only indict former Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, (when there are so many others which should also be made to carry their share of the blame), the investigation has now been halted by two of the deputies indicted who challenged Sawan’s authority. If this challenge is accepted by the families and the court, then the investigation will go back to square one until a new judge is appointed and in Lebanon that can take forever.
This ongoing political/legal battle has now muddied the inquiry into the cause of what was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. But no matter how much those responsible for this crime try to weasel their way out their predicament, ignorance is not innocence, especially when one is in a position of power and has a job to protect people and keep them from harm.
Ultimately, we, the Lebanese people, don’t really need their fake investigation to know who is responsible. Every Lebanese knows in their heart who is responsible for the explosion. They are all responsible and we find them guilty as charged.
What happened in the port of Beirut on that fateful catastrophic day was the ultimate manifestation of the results of years of corruption and indifference by a political class which only sees power as a means to a self-promoting end. The only words that come to mind regarding these negligent and criminal individuals are: “Abject failures”.
In any decent self-respecting country, they would have all resigned for the sake of the people, for the sake of the souls who perished, but in Lebanon they have the indecency to think that they can get away with anything. But can they anymore?
“Ignorantia juris non excusat”.
December 19, 2020.