Officials 'may be guilty of homicide' over Beirut explosion

Lebanese government figures 'could be guilty of homicide' over Beirut port explosion: HRW
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Human Rights Watch said certain government figures 'foresaw the death that the ammonium nitrate's presence... could result in'.
The deadly explosion at Beirut's port occurred almost one year ago, on 4 August 2020 [Mahmut Geldi/Anadolu/Getty]

Lebanese government officials could be guilty of "homicide" over their handling of fertiliser at the port in Beirut where a fatal explosion took place last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.

In a new report titled, "'They killed us from the inside': An investigation into the August 4 Beirut Blast", the New York-based rights group catalogued a series of failings regarding the stockpile of ammonium nitrate that blew up, causing 218 deaths and 7,000 injuries.

HRW claimed certain figures could be guilty under Lebanese law of "homicide with probable intent", "unintentional homicide", or both, adding that this also breaches the right to life contained in international law.

"Evidence strongly suggests that some government officials foresaw the death that the ammonium nitrate's presence in the port could result in and tacitly accepted the risk of the deaths occurring," HRW said.

"Multiple Lebanese authorities were, at a minimum, criminally negligent under Lebanese law in their handling" of the situation, the NGO claimed.

Paul and Tracy Naggear, parents of three-year-old blast victim Alexandra, attended a press conference launching the report on Tuesday.

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Paul questioned whether the state was properly commemorating the tragedy's anniversary and called the Beirut port explosion a "crime against humanity".

Tracy said their contact with authorities has been limited.

Paul said: "It feels like we're in a movie. It's so surreal, I can't imagine this is what happened to us."

He also described those implicated by earlier HRW speakers at the event as "a fragment of the wider political-criminal regime of Lebanon".

"In our opinion, when Human Rights Watch says there's a list of individuals that were aware, for me, if Michel Aoun, the President of the Republic, if [caretaker Prime Minister] Hassan Diab, if all of these officials knew, then all of them knew," he continued.

Top-level figures, including Aoun, Diab, and Director General of State Security Tony Saliba, were told about the dangers associated with the fertiliser and neglected to do what was required to stop these, HRW's report claimed.

Lebanon's General Directorate of State Security, which completed an investigation into the ammonium nitrate at the port before the explosion, was slow to report the threat to senior government officials and provided incomplete information about the dangers the chemical posed, HRW said.

State Security initially wrote to Aoun and Diab about the risks present on 20 July 2020.

Diab axed his trip to the port on 3 June. He then requested Saliba's team be told to create a report concerning the ammonium nitrate in the coming days to allow him to go to the port with the necessary knowledge.

"I then forgot about it, and nobody followed up. There are disasters every day," Diab said to HRW.

HRW Crisis and Conflict Director and report co-author Lama Fakih told the press conference: "What we found in the course of our research is that what happened on August 4, 2020, cannot be seen as an anomaly or an aberration.

"What happened on August 4 was the natural consequence of a system rooted in corruption and impunity and characterised by bureaucracy and mismanagement."

Major political factions, such as Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement have gained from unclear and inadequate management and accountability regimes at the port, it was added.

Moreover, the owner of the Rhosus, the ship the chemicals arrived in Beirut in 2013 onboard, had ties with a bank that has faced allegations for "having dealings" with Hezbollah and Syria's Assad regime, the HRW investigation said.

This was the case at minimum until soon after the Moldovan-flagged vessel, allegedly sailing from Georgia to Mozambique, reached Beirut.

When it made it there, problems quickly began to occur, according to HRW.

"Ministry of Public Works and Transport officials inaccurately described the cargo's risks in their requests to the judiciary to offload the merchandise," the report said.

They also "knowingly stored the ammonium nitrate in Beirut's port alongside flammable or explosive materials for nearly six years", even after receiving reports warning that the chemical, of which there was 2,750 tonnes, is "extremely hazardous", according to the rights group.

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For their part, customs officials who were first alerted to the hazardous chemicals in 2014, and who could have acted unilaterally to remove the material from the port, failed to take adequate steps to dispose of it, the NGO claimed.

HRW's report called on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to mandate an investigation into the blast and for foreign governments to impose human rights and corruption sanctions on officials.

A UNHRC probe "might help to end the reign of impunity that for too long has cast a long shadow over the victims of a wide range of human rights abuses in Lebanon", HRW Executive Director Ken Roth said.

This could help "establish the truth" as to why, for example, the ammonium nitrate was located 480m away from a residential part of the city, he said.

"It's time for the Human Rights Council to heed the call of the Lebanese people to help them finally to establish a state that is subject to the rule of law and committed to protecting the people of the country from such devastation."

Despite the scale of the devastation the explosion caused, almost all officials HRW interviewed attempted to place responsibility for what happened elsewhere, according to HRW Lebanon researcher and report co-author Aya Majzoub.

A Lebanese investigation into the blast, led by Judge Tarek Bitar, has stalled. Politicians and senior security officials are yet to be questioned and requests to lift their immunity have been hindered.

Caretaker premier Hassan Diab's foreign media adviser, Leila Hatoum, hit out at HRW.

She said: "Having attended the interview that Human Rights Watch (HRW) conducted with Lebanon’s Caretaker PM Dr. Hassan Diab on June 8, I find it sad to see that HRW, presumably a professional organization, not only twist and add to the Prime Minister’s own words that he gave to them in full transparency, but also take them out of context.

"Despite multiple corrections sent to HRW with respect to them misquoting the PM and taking his words out of context to fit their own narrative, HRW remained adamant at using their faulty lines.

"The Prime Minister had done all within his power during the short period of time from him being officially informed on July 22nd, 2020 of the State Security’s report to address the issue of the ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut Port’s hangar 12."

Reuters sought comment on the report's findings from Aoun, Diab and Saliba.

The presidential palace offered no comment.

Saliba said his agency did all it could within its legal remit, filing legal reports to warn officials, and had an office open at the port only months before the blast.

There was no immediate response from Diab.

Aoun said on Friday he was ready to testify and that no one was above the law.

HRW based its report on official documents it reviewed and on multiple interviews with top officials including the president, the caretaker prime minister, and the head of the country's state security.

Reuters and AFP contributed to this story.