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Unanswered Questions Remain One Year After Beirut’s Port Blast

08-04-2021
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JERUSALEM, Israel – One year ago today, an explosion ripped through the port of Beirut, killing at least 214 people, injuring more than 6,000, and destroying or damaged thousands of homes and businesses.

Minutes before the blast, there was a huge fire at a port warehouse. Then, hundreds of tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrates detonated.

One of the first questions raised after the horrific Aug. 4 explosion was: “Who is responsible?” A year later, Lebanese leaders have yet to answer that question and activists are pushing for information about who ordered the shipment of highly explosive material.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on Tuesday accusing senior Lebanese officials of knowing about the dangerous chemicals and ignoring repeated warnings of their danger. Now, the organization says those same officials are trying to thwart the investigation.

The 650-page report, titled “They Killed Us from the Inside,” includes scores of documents and exchanges between Lebanese officials about the ammonium nitrates stored for nearly six years at the port.

“The actions and omissions of Lebanese authorities created an unreasonable risk of life,” the HRW report said, adding that under international human rights law, a state’s failure to act to prevent foreseeable risks to life is a violation of the right to life.

In addition, HRW said evidence strongly suggests some government officials foresaw the possible devastation from chemicals haphazardly stored in the port and accepted the risk to human life.

“Under domestic law, this could amount to the crime of homicide with probable intent, and/or unintentional homicide,” it added.

The report names senior Lebanese leaders, including President Michel Aoun, then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab, a former Lebanese army chief, senior security officials and several ministers among others who knew about the risk the nitrates posed to the heavily populated residential areas in Beirut’s port.

Lebanese officials have acknowledged they knew about the ammonium nitrates but say they either took action to prevent the explosion, or say they didn’t, because the matter was outside of their jurisdiction.

HRW is calling for sanctions against the individuals involved and an international probe. Survivors and families of those killed in the blast have repeatedly called for an international investigation.

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On Tuesday, the United Nations human rights chief urged accountability for the massive explosion.

"12 months on, victims and their loved ones are still fighting for justice and truth. Investigations appear to have stalled, amid a worrying lack of transparency and accountability," OHCHR spokesperson Marta Hurtado told journalists in Geneva.

Official reports say the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate were carried to Lebanon by a ship called The Rhosus in 2013. It was allegedly sailing from the Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi and bound for the Mozambican port of Beira.

It stopped in Beirut, supposedly to try to earn extra money by taking on several pieces of heavy machinery. But that additional cargo was too heavy for the ship and the crew refused to accept it. 

The Rhosus was impounded by the Lebanese authorities for failing to pay port fees, and never left the port again.

HRW questions whether the shipment was actually supposed to reach Mozambique, or if “Beirut was the intended destination" all along.

Last month, Lebanon's lead investigating judge in the case, Tarek Bitar, announced he intends to pursue senior Lebanese officials and requested permission for their prosecution.

Those implicated in the blast, including the outgoing prime minister, lawmakers and top generals, have refused to appear at the prosecutor’s office, citing that they either have immunity as members of parliament or need special permission from the prime minister or the interior minister to appear.

Lebanon is also in the throes of an economic meltdown that activists say is largely caused by political corruption.

On Tuesday, the World Food Program said it is “now supporting one in six people in the country, more than at any time in its history.”

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