My Government Did This!
My Government Did This!
Nearly 20 days before the eve of the first anniversary of the Beirut port explosion that destroyed the city on August 4th, 2020, Investigative Judge Tarek Bitar continues to take advanced judicial measures that are met with popular approval and embrace. Despite all the difficulties, Judge Bitar’s actions opened a window of hope that the truth will emerge, justice will arrive, and accountability will be realized. However, they were also met with panic that went beyond the individuals and entities that the prosecution placed in direct responsibility for what happened. Instead, the entire political system was affected after information emerged about the investigative judge’s intention to prosecute the felony of “possible intent to murder” against a new group of senior politicians and security officers.
After the crime of August 4th, activists wrote on what remained of a wall facing the port: “My Government Did This!” This was the clearest expression of political suspicion of the party responsible for the calamitous explosion, which created a conviction that the explosion did not simply occur by chance. The blast, which killed 218 people, injured about 7,000, displaced about 300,000, and destroyed the heart of the capital, added to the traumas that afflicted all of Lebanon. From the beginning, citizens began to ask questions about the implications of targeting the fabric of the capital and its demographic composition, and unanswered questions persisted about possible containers of death under the sleeping city! The prosecution undermined the entire political, administrative, military, security, and judicial structure of the Lebanese sectarian-quota spoil-sharing regime, moving the entire issue from the realm of political suspicion to the level of felony prosecution –granting that slogan even great credibility.
If one takes into account the stated expectation that the investigative judge will conclude his detailed indictment by next September, within a record period for a crime of this magnitude and with as many tracks and branches as this case has, one could then understand the current level of alarm of the political and security establishment and their aim to obstruct the investigation until its closure and to establish a “principle” of impunity without considering that the blood from that mass murder has not yet dried!
The investigation was targeted from its very beginning and attempts to disrupt it were public. This is even though the ruling regime, which refused to seek the assistance of an international investigation, had opted for a local investigation and referred the case to the Judicial Council. Attacks on this investigation were first launched by Hezbollah and its Secretary-General, who described the explosion as a mere “incident” and demanded that the initial security investigation suffice, under the pretext of securing compensation for insured parties as if there were no need for a judicial investigation nor justice. These pressures, combined with the “legitimate suspicion” lawsuit, led to the suspension of investigations for more than two months, after which the Court of Cassation removed the previous investigative judge, Fadi Sawan, following a controversial decision. After that, Tarek Bitar was appointed as the new investigative judge who, the establishment wagered, would abide by the red lines!
Judge Bitar, known for his integrity, courage, experience, and legal acumen in his cases, disappointed the Lebanese regime of despotism. He adopted the same method as the former judge on the case, Fadi Sawan, doing him justice. He then proceeded to untangle the convoluted elements of this case: First, the route of the shipment of ammonium nitrate that made its way to Beirut by anything but chance, as well as the identities of its real owners. The second is the plot related to receiving the shipment and the political, security, administrative and judicial roles that led to the storage, protection, and facilitation of transport of tons of ammonium nitrate out of the port after broad acquiescence from the highest levels to the lowest about placing a pillow of death under the unsuspecting heads of Beirut and its people. The third element to consider is the process of detonating the remaining quantities and the circumstances therein, such as it being the result of an airstrike, for example, or that of internal sabotage or a “welding accident” and therefore negligence!
Any further examination of the crime, which was classified as a crime against humanity, this track was set to be a central link. What is the “partnership” that dictated the receipt of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, and at whose request? Could they have disposed of the substance but failed to do so? Was it their duty to protect the city, and they failed to take the initiative? Could they have saved the precious blood, but instead, they caused it to be spilled?
“They all knew.” Soon, the veracity of the previous slogan emerges, and with it, dangerous information, documented in security reports, warning of the danger of the presence of such massive quantities of highly explosive materials that threaten to destroy Beirut. As it turned out, many senior political officials and security commanders, including senior administrators and judges, had received these reports. Judge Bitar’s documents certainly included the case of retired customs colonel Joseph Skaff, who was killed, or rather removed from the picture, in March 2017. Skaff was the author of the first report since February 2014, warning of the danger of the shipment and demanding that the ship Rhosus be removed from the port and not be unloaded in the port’s hangars.
Given all this, the investigative judge came up with what was termed the felony of “possible intent,” to make claims against every official who received written messages about this danger and what could result from it did not initiate any action that would save lives, the capital, and Lebanon. Only the investigation could provide the answers and uncover the truth, and the accused surely have all the information to disentangle the process of entering thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate into the Beirut Port, and the nature of the relations from inside and outside. The prosecution requested permission to prosecute, and the investigative judge did not stop short of pursuing major officials or prominent figures. This development confused the parliament, in the issue of waiving immunity for MPs who held ministerial positions, namely Nouhad Al-Machnouk, Ali Hassan Khalil, and Ghazi Zuaiter, such that the parliament’s office turned into a body whose concern was to disrupt the entire judicial process.
Moreover, this was accompanied by the mobilization of some judges to harness their knowledge and experience in search of justifications and excuses for disrupting permissions to prosecute senior security officials, foremost amongst them Major General Abbas Ibrahim, only to complement attempts to establish impunity. This was a dangerous development made by the Parliament office in response to the request to drop immunity, represented in the falsification of Article 91 of this system which provided for the submission of a “summary of evidence” to justify the judicial request. However, MP Elie Ferzli, on behalf of the parliament, went to the extent of demanding “all documents and papers that would prove suspicion,” that is, putting the judge under pain of disclosing the confidentiality of the investigation and considering the Parliament office as a judicial body when it is not.
In a known precedent that took place in 1999, the immunity of MP Habib Hakim was revoked after a summary of the investigation was satisfied. Soon, the refusal came from Judge Bitar based on Articles 91 and 98 of the parliament system, both of which confirm that a judicial investigator is not obligated to provide any additional documents or evidence and that parliament is required to drop immunity.
Leading up to the eve of the August 4th anniversary, public upheaval is on the rise as a result of the comprehensive collapse in Lebanon, and the increased emaciation of a political class that lacks legitimacy both internally and externally, and which is beholden to Hezbollah that rejects the investigation and which exerts public pressures to upend it. All of this raises questions about Hezbollah’s role as the party that used to control not only the port hangars but even the sidewalks in Lebanon! For all this, the overwhelming majority of Lebanese are faced with the challenge of positioning themselves at the heart of the battle against this system of oppression, pillage, killing, and subjugation to external powers to impose the dynamism that opens the path to accountability and the possibility of building a homeland for the Lebanese that they deserve.