Protests by the families of victims of the deadly Beirut Port explosion are a stark reminder that justice is yet to be met, Amnesty International said today. Lebanese authorities have failed to hold anyone to account for the August 2020 blast, which killed 217 people and forcibly displaced more than 300,000 following severe damage to tens of thousands of homes. They have also in effect been obstructing the course of justice, by claiming immunity rights for high-level officials.
On 13 July dozens of protesters joined the relatives of some of the victims in gathering outside the home of caretaker Minister of Interior Mohammed Fehmi, who has rejected a request by leading investigator judge Tarek Bitar, to investigate Abbas Ibrahim, one of Lebanon’s most senior generals, over his role in the tragedy. Security forces responded with excessive force, using teargas and batons which resulted in several injuries.
“Families calling for justice in Beirut yesterday carried white coffins and photos of their deceased loved ones, before they were forced away with teargas. It was a stark illustration of the pain families feel at the authorities’ failure to move forward with an impartial and effective investigation," said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“The protesters’ demand is simple: let justice take its course. We stand with these families in calling on Lebanese authorities to immediately lift all immunities granted to officials, regardless of their role or position. Any failure to do so is an obstruction of justice, and violates the rights of victims and families to truth, justice and reparations.”
In July 2021, investigative judge Tarek Bitar requested permission to investigate MPs and high-level security officials, including MP and former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, MP and former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter, MP and former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, the head of General Security Directorate Major General Abbas Ibrahim, and the head of State Security Major General Tony Saliba, over the explosion.
On 2 July, Minister Fehmi told TV station LBCI that he would grant Judge Bitar the permission to prosecute Ibrahim, but later reversed his statement and rejected the Judge’s request. Since then, families of victims have been holding weekly protests in support of an impartial and effective investigation.
The Lebanese Red Cross said it had dispatched four teams to Mohammed Fehmi’s residence last night, to treat wounded protesters on the ground and transfer those with more severe injuries to hospitals, but did not release a total number of wounded protesters. In a statement issued last night, the Internal Security Forces claimed that 20 policemen were injured due to falling glass or attacks by protesters.
“Amnesty International stands by the victims of the Beirut Port explosion in their fight for justice. The post-conflict era has been marked by entrenched impunity that has pervaded every aspect of the lives of people in Lebanon,” said Lynn Maalouf.
“A truly impartial and independent investigation into the Beirut Port explosion is essential for building a better future for Lebanon, in which human rights are protected and justice is upheld.”
On 4 August 2020, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history decimated Beirut’s port and damaged more half the city. The explosion killed 217 people and wounded 7,000, of whom 150 acquired a physical disability. The blast also caused untold psychological harm, and damaged 77,000 apartments, forcibly displacing over 300,000 people. At least three children between the ages of two and 15 lost their lives.
In June, Amnesty International wrote to the UN Human Rights Council with a coalition of over 50 Lebanese and international organisations, calling for an international investigative mission, such as a one-year fact-finding mission, into the Beirut blast, due to a range of procedural and systemic flaws which prevent Lebanon from meeting its international obligations to provide redress to victims. These include flagrant political interference, a lack of respect for fair trial standards, and due process violations as well as immunity for high-level political officials.
Indeed, Article 40 of the Lebanese constitution states that no member of parliament “may, during the sessions, be prosecuted or arrested for a criminal offense, without the permission of the Chamber, except when caught in the act”.
However, this is in direct contradiction with Lebanon’s obligations under the UN 2016 Minnesota Protocol, which aims to protect the right to life and advance justice, accountability and the right to a remedy. The protocol identifies a potentially unlawful death as occurring “where the State may have failed to meet its obligations to protect life,” and further states that “impunity stemming from, for example, unreasonably short statutes of limitations or blanket amnesties (de jure impunity), or from prosecutorial inaction or political interference (de facto impunity), is incompatible with this duty”.