Beirut, Lebanon – It’s been two long years for the families of the more than 200 people killed in the Beirut port explosion, but as the Lebanese investigation continues to be hampered, the fight for justice could take hold among new lawsuits initiated from abroad. .
Tania Dou-Alam and her husband Jean-Frederic Alam were attending an appointment at St George’s hospital, which overlooks the port of Beirut, on the evening of 4 August 2020, when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire in a warehouse. port, causing one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.
Freddie, as Dou-Alam fondly refers to her husband, was killed instantly when the glass in the building broke and threw them across the room.
“When you lose your husband, your soul mate, it feels like losing your whole life,” Dou-Alam told Al Jazeera.
Since the blast, in which more than 7,000 people were injured and much of the surrounding neighborhoods were destroyed, Dou-Alam and others who had family members killed, have tirelessly demanded justice.
“It makes me feel like I’m doing something for Freddie, because we owe him, we owe them all the truth and justice,” Dou-Alam said.
“This makes my life worth living because at some point I lost hope for everything; I was wondering why I’m still here, we were sitting next to each other, then seconds later he was gone, “Dou-Alam said.
The evidence that emerged strongly suggests that senior government and security officials were aware of the risk from ammonium nitrate stocks and tacitly accepted it. The reports also raised questions about the links between officials and offshore trade and questioned the claims of companies involved in shipping the dangerous cargo.
But Lebanese investigations have been hampered by relentless political meddling, including by Lebanese politicians who have filed more than 25 requests for dismissal of the judges leading the investigation, starting with Judge Fadi Sawan, who was fired in February 2021.
His successor, Judge Tarek Bitar, faced the same legal pressures and challenges, which led to the suspension of the investigation since December last year. Bitar had issued arrest warrants for some officials, although the security forces did not act accordingly.
With no sign that internal investigations will soon proceed, a civil suit was filed in the United States in mid-July by the Swiss organization Accountability Now. It is seeking $ 250 million in damages for survivors and has also dismissed the case in hopes of uncovering new evidence that could advance the Lebanese investigation and other international probes.
The lawsuit seeks damages from TGS, a US-Norwegian geophysical services group based in Texas, owner of the British company Spectrum, the company that chartered the Moldovan-flagged Rhosus in 2013 to ship ammonium nitrate, presumably destined for Mozambique.
Zina Wakim, president of Accountability Now and co-advisor to the victims, told Al Jazeera that the case focuses on contracts entered into between Spectrum and the Lebanese Ministry of Energy, particularly in 2012 when Spectrum was commissioned to perform analysis of the seismic data, for which he requested vibrator trucks.
After fulfilling contractual obligations, the trucks had to be transported from Beirut to Jordan and, to do so, the Rhosus would be chartered.
This even though the Rhosus – with a maximum capacity of 964 tons – was already carrying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate presumably destined for Mozambique and did not have suitable ramps to load such heavy machinery weighing 160 tons.
Several investigations found that the Rhosus – seized in the port of Beirut for months due to a debt dispute and then safety concerns over its shaky state – was reportedly at risk of sinking and the ship had to unload the ship. its ammonium nitrate cargo in the port in October 2014.
Lawyers and victims’ families say the recall of the trucks claim was a ploy to get the ammonium nitrate to Beirut and dump it there.
“It was already three times its capacity when he arrived in Beirut … so it makes no sense why this boat was chartered in Lebanon with the coverage of machinery transport for seismic data,” Wakim said.
During the case, people in Lebanon can be summoned for questioning in the United States and, if they don’t show up, they could be held in contempt of court with potential arrest warrants issued.
“They won’t be able to evade international justice … they may refuse to appear, but then they should just stay in Lebanon like a golden cage until the wind turns,” Wakim said.
Freddie was an American citizen: because her two children and Dou-Alam’s were born in the United States and she has a green card, she and her children were able to sign their names as plaintiffs in the case against TGS.
Dou-Alam believes that legal action in the United States is a way to listen to the victims, considering that “there is a lack of concern around the world regarding the explosion”.
Other relatives of the victims also joined the cause.
Sarah Copland – the mother of two-year-old Isaac Oehlers, the youngest person killed in the blast – says this year is particularly difficult for her and her husband.
“[Now it’s] two years, it won’t be long before Isaac is gone longer than he was with us, because he was [only] two years and three months, so it’s a huge thing on my mind, ”Copland told Al Jazeera.
Although Copland and his family lived less than a mile from the port in 2020, Isaac was born in New York and had US citizenship, so Copland felt a sense of responsibility to join the suit in Texas as a plaintiff on behalf of the people in Lebanon whose only recourse is the internal Lebanese process.
Plaintiffs say the evidence clarifies that Spectrum knowingly participated or turned a blind eye to the events that brought ammonium nitrate to the port of Beirut.
“At best it’s negligence, at worst [there is a] nefarious business going on, “Copland said.
“There is no money or anything that will make this any better, but if damages are awarded, the idea is that a victim fund would be set up, so it wouldn’t just benefit the plaintiffs in the case,” he said, adding could helping families focus on healing rather than daily survival amid Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis.
TGS did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera, but previously said it denies all allegations in the lawsuit and intends to fight them in court.
Another major international lawsuit filed by the Beirut Bar at the beginning of the year is continuing in the UK High Court of Justice against Savaro Ltd, the company suspected of importing ammonium nitrate from the Georgian chemical factory. Rustavi Azot.
Savaro Ltd, now apparently inactive, has had a deadline of September 20 to reveal its still unclear ownership and, in the event of non-compliance, an outrage can be brought against the court injunction against the company, which would lead to criminal proceedings.
Al Jazeera was unable to contact Savaro Ltd for comment.
Meanwhile, there are also local prosecutions in France, Germany and the Netherlands regarding the deaths of diplomats in the blast, but in addition to depending on internal investigations to reveal the results, supporters say these countries would also benefit from the United Nations. separate Human Rights Council (HRC) fact-finding mission.
Lawyers and families of the victims have been called for such an investigation since the explosion occurred, to no avail.
A UN investigation is urgently needed
The UN later stated that they “support calls for a timely, impartial, credible and independent investigation based on human rights principles, to examine all claims, concerns and needs in relation to the explosion, as well as the underlying failures of human rights “.
But it has not launched its own investigation and defenders of justice into the blast say their letter to the High Commissioner for Human Rights calling for a UN investigation went unanswered.
On the second anniversary of the explosion, survivors and families of those killed and several organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Legal Action Worldwide, Legal Agenda and the International Commission of Jurists sent another letter to the HRC of the Nations. United to urge an independent fact – research mission to Lebanon.
Legal Action Worldwide executive director Antonia Mulvey told Al Jazeera that it is more urgent than ever that this resolution be presented to the UNHRC at the next September session, considering the “total failure” of the internal investigation.
But as Human Rights Watch pointed out in early July, France is the obstacle to submitting a resolution in the HRC as President Emmanuel Macron is unwilling to take the initiative and most member states look to Paris. to do so, considering its historical links with Lebanon.
“It is shameful that member states have not yet put it as a resolution, it is clearly a human rights issue, the very basis of human rights is the right to life,” Mulvey said.
France’s position is a sore point for families, considering that Macron arrived in Lebanon two days after the explosion promising to help the Lebanese people in the absence of a government, and personally called for an “international, open and transparent investigation” on the cause of seeking devastation.
“It is imperative that President Macron follow up on his original statements calling for an independent and fair investigation,” Mulvey said. “France must listen to the call of the victims”.
As a mother whose child was taken away in a split second, Copland finds it incredibly frustrating that the request for a UN investigation continues to be ignored.
“Until I have Isaac, there will always be a huge hole in our lives, but I think as long as [we] having to expend energy to fight for justice means [we] it can’t just focus on processing all the feelings and pain, ”Copland said.
Dou-Alam is confident that justice will soon be delivered, solely thanks to how courageous and courageous all the families of the victims are, to oppose impunity.
“Whenever you have evidence and people ready to fight, justice will come, even if it won’t be very quick, it will come,” he said.