UK ruling delivers rare victory for Beirut port blast victims

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A British court has ruled a London-based company that delivered the explosive ammonium nitrate to Beirut’s port is liable towards the victims of a devastating blast in 2020, Lebanon’s Beirut Bar Association said Thursday.

On Aug. 4 that year, hundreds of tons of the chemical, typically used in fertilizers, detonated, killing more than 200 people, injuring over 6,000 and damaging large parts of Beirut. Families of the explosion’s victims saw the development as a rare step towards justice and against the political intervention that has obstructed the investigative judge leading a probe in Lebanon for over two years.

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The ruling in London is an unusual judicial success for the victims’ families, members of whom have advocated for an unimpeded national investigation. Some have opted to file lawsuits abroad.

The London-registered chemical trading firm, Savaro Ltd., is suspected of having chartered the shipment of the ammonium nitrate in 2013 that ended up in Beirut. Documents show a handful of senior political, judicial and security officials were aware of the substance in the port for years, but did not take decisive action to get rid of it.

The Beirut Bar Association, alongside three victims’ families, filed a lawsuit against Savaro Ltd. over a year ago.

The judgment by the High Court of Justice in London means that the proceedings now move to a “damages phase” of the case that determines the firm’s compensation for the families, Camille Abousleiman, one of the lawyers involved in the case, told The Associated Press.

“It’s the first time there is an actual judgment on this matter in reputable courts,” Abousleiman, also a former Lebanese labor minister, said. The ruling “certainly will open the door for potential justice in courts overseas.”

Mariana Foudoulian, whose sister Gaia died in the explosion, called the judgment a “very important step.”

“Through this judgment, we can try to access more important details,” Foudoulian told the AP. “This does give us some hope.”

The civil suit against Savaro Ltd. was filed in August 2021. Soon after, UK authorities blocked the firm’s attempts to dissolve the company. It remains unclear who the owner of the company is. The listed owners are agents from a corporate services firm, investigative journalists from Lebanese and international outlets reported. The High Court of Justice in June 2022 ordered the company to reveal its true owners, though the firm never has done so.

Elsewhere, the Swiss foundation Accountability Now and some of the victims’ families filed a lawsuit in Texas against US-Norwegian geophysical services group TGS, which owns a company that allegedly sub-chartered the ship carrying the ammonium nitrate in 2012.

Foundation officials said they hoped it would force the company to disclose communications with other parties being investigated.

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