Police question Lebanese relatives of 2020 blast victims

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Several relatives of the victims of the massive 2020 explosion at Beirut’s port showed up on Monday to answer questions by police after they were accused of rioting and vandalism during protests over the stalled investigation into the blast.

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The rioting last week saw the relatives hurl rocks at the Beirut Justice Palace and burn tires outside the building, decrying years of what they say is political interference in the probe.

The Aug. 4, 2020 explosion killed more than 215 people, injured 6,000 and devastated entire neighborhoods of the Lebanese capital after hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilizers, detonated in a port warehouse.

It later emerged the chemical was shipped to Lebanon in 2013 and stored improperly at the warehouse. A handful of senior political and security officials knew of its presence and the threat it imposed on the city but failed to take action to remove it.

Judge Tarek Bitar’s investigation into the disaster has been frozen since December 2021 after politicians he had charged in the case filed legal challenges to the probe. No one has been tried or convicted over the blast.

The families of the port blast victims have long campaigned for an uninterrupted investigation and have frequently protested and held monthly vigils. Some of the families and Lebanese activists, as well as human rights organizations have urged the United Nations to investigate the blast.

On Monday, 13 relatives of blast victims showed up to answer police summons over the rioting. As they were being questioned inside the police compound, hundreds of other relatives of the blast victims, activists, and some lawmakers protested outside and condemned the country’s ruling elite. They say the elite’s lock on power has kept its members immune from accountability.

William Noun, who lost his brother firefighter Joe in the blast, has been an outspoken activist. Summoned Monday, he later claimed the authorities are trying to exhaust and intimidate the families. Security forces raided his home and detained him overnight on Saturday, after he spoke in a TV interview and criticized the judiciary.

“We want justice, and we want everyone who blew up the port to be held accountable, regardless of their political affiliation,” he said as he walked into the compound.

Among the protesters outside was the mother of Ahmad Kaadan, who was killed in the blast. She held a poster of her son and decried what she said was Lebanon’s “failed state and judiciary.”

“Instead of bringing in the officials with arrest warrants, they’re going after the families wanting to know who killed their children,” Um Ahmad told reporters. “In this country, those on the side of justice are getting arrested while the criminals are enjoying their lives.”

Some reformist lawmakers backing Bitar’s investigation and victims’ families were also at the protest.

“Not only has the investigation been stalled, but now (these) attacks are (meant) to undermine the protest movement asking for the courts to resume due process,” said legislator Mark Daou, who also accused the political elite of trying to suppress families’ campaign for justice.

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