DUBAI: High-ranking Lebanese officials “were, at a minimum, criminally negligent under Lebanese law in their handling” of the situation that resulted in the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port a year ago, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The port and the area around it was destroyed and a large section of the city was damaged on Aug. 4 when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored at the port for several years without proper safety precautions, ignited and exploded.
One of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, it killed at least 218 people, injured more than 7,000 and left an estimated 300,000 homeless.
So far no high-ranking officials have been held accountable for the failures that led to the explosion, because of “systemic problems in Lebanon’s legal and political system,” HRW said.
For its report, the international rights watchdog studied hundreds of pages of official findings, documents and other evidence. This reveals that “the actions and omissions of Lebanese authorities created an unreasonable risk to life,” the organization concluded.
“In addition, evidence strongly suggests that some government officials foresaw the deaths that the ammonium nitrate’s presence in the port could result in and tacitly accepted the risk of the deaths occurring,” it added. “Under domestic law, this could amount to the crime of homicide with probable intent, and/or unintentional homicide.”
The report in particular accuses the Finance Ministry of failing to take action to dispose of the ammonium nitrate after it was informed about it. It also accuses the Lebanese army of failing to take any steps to secure or remove the material from the port, even though its nitrogen content meant that it was under army oversight.
Lebanese State Security, meanwhile, carried out an investigation and the results were detailed in a report, but it delayed relaying the information to the relevant authorities.
According to the HRW report, President Michel Aoun, the then-caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab, Director General of State Security Tony Saliba, and some former ministers all failed to act in a timely manner to deal with the threat.
Aoun’s office could not be reached for comment. Leila Hatoum, advisor to Diab on foreign media affairs, told Arab News that he “had done all within his power, during the short period of time from him being officially informed on July 22, 2020 of the State Security’s report, to address the issue of the ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut Port’s hangar 12.”
The Lebanese investigation into the blast, led by Judge Tarek Bitar, has stalled because politicians wanted for questioning are protected by parliamentary immunity.
Mass protests are planned in Lebanon on Wednesday to mark the first anniversary of the explosion. The families of its victims on Monday set a deadline of 30 hours for the authorities to strip officials of their immunity.
A spokesperson warned that the families are “done with … peaceful protests” and will take “more confrontational” action if their demands are ignored.