Beirut port blast: Three years on, victims still await accountability

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Lebanon on Friday marks the third anniversary of the Beirut port explosion which killed at least 220 people, wounded thousands, and damaged swathes of the city.

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Despite the devastation, an investigation has brought no senior official to account. Here is a summary of what happened and how the investigation has been stymied:

The explosion

The blast is thought to have been set off by a fire at a warehouse just after 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) on August 4, 2020, detonating hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate.

Originally bound for Mozambique aboard a Russian-leased ship, the chemicals had been at the port since 2013, when they were unloaded during an unscheduled stop.

No one claimed the shipment, tangled in a legal dispute over unpaid fees and defects.

The amount that blew up was one fifth of the 2,754 tons unloaded in 2013, the FBI concluded, adding to suspicions that much of the cargo had gone missing.

The blast sent a mushroom cloud over Beirut, and was felt 250 km (155 miles) away in Cyprus.

Who knew about the chemicals?

Many Lebanese officials, including then-President Michel Aoun and then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab, knew of the cargo.

Aoun said after the blast he had told security chiefs to “do what is necessary” after learning of the chemicals. Diab has said his conscience is clear.

Human Rights Watch said in a 2021 report that high-level security and government officials “foresaw the significant threat to life ... and tacitly accepted the risk of deaths occurring.”

Investigation stymied

Ruling factions have big sway over the judiciary, which Lebanon’s top judge acknowledged in 2022 in general criticism of the problem.

Judge Fadi Sawan appointed by the justice minister to investigate the blast charged three ex-ministers and Diab with negligence in December 2020. But a court removed him from the case in February 2021 after two ex-ministers - Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeitar - complained he had overstepped his powers.

Sawan’s successor Fadi Bitar sought to interrogate senior figures including Khalil and Zeitar. All deny wrongdoing.

Suspects’ demands for Bitar’s removal over alleged bias and mistakes have prompted several suspensions of the investigation.

The judges meant to rule on those complaints retired in 2022 and no successors were appointed, leaving the probe in limbo.

In early 2023, Bitar unexpectedly resumed his probe and charged more officials including Abbas Ibrahim, a top security official at the time of the blast.

However, Lebanon’s top public prosecutor charged Bitar for allegedly exceeding his powers and ordered the release of people detained since the blast, including the former head of the Beirut port authority, putting the probe on hold again.

Hezbollah’s role

Iran-backed Hezbollah has dismissed public accusations it controls the port or stored arms there and it campaigned against Bitar as he sought to question its allies.

In 2021, a Hezbollah official warned Bitar the group would “uproot” him, and its supporters marched in an anti-Bitar protest that prompted deadly violence in Beirut.

Hezbollah has also accused the United States of meddling in the probe. The US ambassador has denied this.

Overseas action

Victims have turned to foreign courts.

Last year, some filed a $250 million claim in the United States against a company linked to the ship.

In June, a London court awarded nearly $1 million in damages to victims. But it was a symbolic victory because the identity of the beneficial owner of a British-registered firm that had sold the chemicals was not disclosed, making it unclear who would pay.

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