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Lebanon crisis

Lebanon’s rule of law proves arbitrary as Beirut port explosion probe stalls

Rami Rayess

Published: Updated:

The Beirut port explosion investigation has been put on halt for 10 days, signaling that the probe’s path will likely be rocky even once it continues.

Investigators last week charged caretaker Prime Minister Hasan Diab and three other former ministers with negligence after the August Beirut port explosion that killed nearly 200 people.

But such investigations in Lebanon rarely come to fruition.

Where some have supported the development, others have opposed the step based on confessional affiliations.

But for justice to be served, those responsible need to be held to account. Naming these four public officials is the first step.
The most prominent support came from Prime Minister designate Saad Hariri, a long foe of Diab since the latter assumed office last January.

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Hariri paid a rare visit to Diab and expressed his solidarity saying that “violating the constitution and indicting the premiership is unacceptable.”

A few politicians threw their support behind the judiciary that charged Diab, and Lebanon’s former prime ministers and the grand mufti of Lebanon stood behind Diab, saying he cannot be indicted on such charges.

Former Prosecutor General Hatem Madi said in a televised interview that the judge in charge has the full right to prosecute former premiers, according to the law, and can even question the president, should the need arise.

The Lebanese constitution outlines that a supreme council can convene to charge presidents and ministers, though this council has rarely, if ever, convened.

In the mid-1990s Finance Minister Fouad Saniora (who would go on to serve as prime minister) and Minister of Oil Shahe Barsoumian were charged in front of regular courts.

The “Club of Judges” a non-partisan, informal body that includes tens of judges who advocate for the independence of the judiciary, announced that it is within the jurisdiction of the judge to try officials for regular crimes, such as the Beirut port explosion, rather than crimes relating to their work as government officials.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab speaks during a news conference, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda , Jan. 21, 2020. (AP)
Prime Minister Hassan Diab speaks during a news conference, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda , Jan. 21, 2020. (AP)

Yet, the judiciary suffers from its inability to act independently because it has to secure political approval of all its appointments and promotions. The president and the prime minister approve judicial appointments which makes it hard, if not impossible, to divorce political considerations from judicial behavior. Judges need to earn political support for their career development and promotion.

This has led to a paralyzed judicial authority as several posts are vacant and cannot be filled unless the decree is signed and published in the official gazette.

After the charges were filed, Diab’s office issued a statement saying that he will not testify in front of the judge and the caretaker’s firm position reflects how difficult applying the law is in Lebanon. There is still a long way to go before high officials are held responsible for their crimes.

Unless the judicial authority stands up and uses its power to prosecute officials involved in the port explosion, the nearly 200 victims from the blast will not have justice.

Additionally, by not prosecuting those in power, it sets a precedent that will make it more challenging to right wrongs in the future when atrocities are carried out by those in power.

This is detrimental for any democracy, no matter how fragile it is.

Whether or not the charged officials will be heard by the judge is yet unknown.

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However, it is becoming clearer that the culture of respecting law in Lebanon is eroding. The law remains applicable only to those citizens who lack political support. Respect for the constitution has become more of an arbitrary talking point, rather than compulsory behavior. In Lebanon, essential values are now at stake, and if those responsible for the Beirut port explosion are not held to account, the backslide will continue.

Now, the future of the probe is at stake. As victims’ families await the result of investigation, there is little hope, if any, that any politician will be accountable.

Politicians in Lebanon have never been held accountable, and it’s unlikely to happen now. The ruling elite still refuse internationally mandated reform and the absence of accountability have further hindered the process.

Unfortunately, without reforms, Lebanon will disintegrate further in the coming months as the unprecedented economic crisis continues and the judiciary which is bound to politicians continues to protect a corrupt ruling elite. The worst is yet to come.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.