© Reuters. File photo: Relatives of victims of the Beirut port bombing held their photos at a ceremony held in Beirut, Lebanon on March 20, 2021. REUTERS/Emilie Madi
Beirut (Reuters)-Ibrahim Hoteit lost his brother Tharawat in the huge explosion that swept the Beirut port in August last year. He traveled around the hospital to collect body parts, starting from Tharwat’s scalp, and then buried his body in a small coffin.
Almost a year later, Hoteit, a spokesperson for the families of more than 200 people who died in the disaster, is still trying to track down the people he said caused the accident.
Earlier this month, during a protest outside the Lebanese capital guarding the residence of the Minister of the Interior, he said that security forces used tear gas in a scuffle with crowds.
“Faced with such a serious crime, we cannot deprive the truth and justice,” he told Reuters.
As Beirut prepares to commemorate the first anniversary of the bombing, large areas of the city were razed to the ground, and politicians and senior security officials have not yet been questioned during the formal investigation.
In the latest turning point, the judge in charge of the investigation, Tarek Bitar, asked to question Major General Abbas Ibrahim-the head of the powerful general security agency-being guarded by the Minister of the Interior Mohamed Fahmi Refuse.
Ibrahim said he is bound by the law like all Lebanese, but the investigation should be “away from narrow political considerations”.
Fahmi’s decision prompted some relatives of the deceased to march near his home this month, carrying an empty coffin covered with photos of the victim. The demonstration became violent.
A senior source from the Ministry of the Interior said that the measures taken by the security forces are necessary to protect the minister’s private residence.
The frustration of relatives reflects the general anger of Lebanese over the investigation and, more broadly, the way the country operates.
Lebanon’s debt is spiraling upwards, inflation rate remains high, more than half of the population lives in poverty, and rival political factions have repeatedly failed to form a government.
Most of the damage caused by the explosion is still visible. The port is like a bomb site, and many buildings have collapsed.
The main questions remain unanswered, including why such a large amount of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in bombs and fertilizers, was still stored in crowded urban centers for many years after being unloaded in 2013.
The immunity enjoyed by high-ranking officials has raised suspicions among some families that they may never be held accountable.
“If everyone from the smallest official to the largest… everyone has immunity, how can you do justice?” said Nizar Saghieh, head of the legal agenda of the research and advocacy organization.
According to a letter explaining the decision, Fahmi prevented the judge from questioning Ibrahim’s move based on the recommendation of the Judicial Committee of the Ministry of the Interior not to lift his immunity.
The challenges facing Bitar are not unique.
His predecessor, Fadi Sawan (Fadi Sawan), was excluded from the investigation in February after the court approved his two former ministers, Ali Hassan Khalil, who were accused of negligence in the disaster. Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter-a request to remove him.
A copy of the decision seen by Reuters cited “legitimate suspicions” of Sawan’s neutrality, partly because it claimed that his house was damaged in the explosion.
Khalil and Zeait and the third former minister and outgoing prime minister Hassan Diab declared them innocent when Sawan accused them, refused to be questioned as suspects, and accused Sawan of exceeding his power.
A document seen by Reuters showed that two weeks before the explosion, the president and prime minister were warned that chemicals stored in the port pose a security risk and could destroy the capital.
Bitar hopes that the government and parliament will allow him to question several senior officials, including all those accused by Sawan, as well as the former Minister of the Interior Nohad Mahnuk.
Since his request to inquire about Ibrahim was rejected, the immediate fate of Bitar’s investigation seems to depend on the removal of parliamentary immunity from Machnouk, Khalil, and Zeaiter, all members of Congress.
Members of Congress met earlier this month to discuss Bitar’s request, saying they need more information to make a decision.