Intelligence probe into Beirut explosion lays out liabilities

Intelligence probe into Beirut explosion lays out liabilities

Beirut, Lebanon – A detailed report by Lebanon’s elite Information Branch intelligence agency has found a host of state officials and security agencies responsible for a massive explosion in Beirut’s port in August that killed some 200 people.

The 350-page report, which has been handed to the public prosecutor’s office but not made public, drew on investigations by the Information Branch itself, in addition to probes by the military police and judiciary in the days after the August 4 explosion that destroyed large parts of the capital, injured more than 6,500 people and initially left hundreds of thousands homeless.

The Information Branch is the intelligence wing of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, a prominent security agency that has led investigations into bombings and attacks since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

A senior judicial source familiar with the agency’s report told Al Jazeera on Monday it laid primary blame for the explosion on the Beirut port authority and Lebanese Customs for leaving some 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate at Hangar 12 for nearly seven years in unsafe conditions. It made specific note of current and former customs chiefs Badri Daher and Shafik Merhi, saying they could have acted on their own to remove the explosives and thus prevent the explosion.

The report went on to afford secondary responsibility to the state’s lawyer, known as the Cases Authority, the directorate of land and maritime transport at the public works ministry (tasked with overseeing the port) and Army Intelligence and the State Security agency, both of which have offices at the port.

While security agencies knew of the potential dangers of storing the explosive material at Beirut’s port, they “did not appreciate the fact that their lives were in danger”, the report concludes, drawing on interrogations of state employees and officials.

Officers of General Security, the army and State Security were among those killed in the explosion, which the report said was the result of a fire ignited by sparks from welding works on a metal door.

A senior judicial source familiar with the agency’s report said it had laid primary blame for the explosion on the Beirut port authority and Lebanese Customs [File: Aziz Taher/Reuters]Some 25 low- and mid-level administrative and security officials have been detained in connection with the explosion, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Some 50 others have been questioned.

Current and former ministers and security chiefs were questioned as “witnesses”, rather than as suspects. Even though many top officials – including ministers of finance, public works and justice and Lebanon’s president and prime minister – knew of the presence of the volatile materials in the years and months before the explosion, none is officially considered a suspect by the lead investigator, Judge Fadi Sawan.

Similarly to Sawan, the Information Branch report does not hold any current or former ministers of public works, finance or justice responsible for the explosion. Sawan had considered them out of his reach due to the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by top officials.

Those who have been detained are charged with wilful negligence – a crime punishable by a maximum five-year prison sentence.

Stepping on toes

Sawan was reportedly perturbed by the conclusions reached in the Information Branch report, especially the portion that assigned responsibilities for the explosion, which he considered his prerogative as lead investigator.

Local daily Al-Akhbar reported Sawan had cut off communication with the Information Branch after reviewing the report. A second judicial source told Al Jazeera that Sawan was surprised by the depth of the Information Branch Investigation and believed that it was the role of the judiciary to assign responsibility, rather than the security agencies.

Balloons are pictured during an event to commemorate the victims of the August 4 port explosion [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]Sawan, an investigative judge at Lebanon’s military tribunal, was the third choice for lead investigator into the explosion.

The council of judges that picked him was majority-appointed by Lebanon’s executive branch. They rejected the justice minister’s initial proposal to have a judge known for his independence lead the investigation.

Sawan is now waiting for the arrival of a French experts’ report on the causes of the explosion before he concludes investigations and issues an indictment, which Al Jazeera previously reported is set to be limited to low- and mid-level officials.

Renewed calls for high-level justice

The Beirut Bar Association on Monday renewed its call for investigators to summon top politicians and security personnel and question them as defendants, rather than as witnesses. It said no official was considered immune given the massive scale of the crime.

Many survivors of the explosion and the families of victims have called for some form of an international investigation into the explosion, as have groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Legal Action Worldwide (LAW).

They said an international probe is the only way to ensure accountability, given the politically exposed nature of Lebanon’s courts.

“An independent and impartial fact-find mission is now required to establish the facts of the explosion but equally the root causes which include a vacuum of rule of law and lack of effective governance,” LAW said in a report released on Friday.

“Victims and their families can and should not be a ‘test’ case for the justice system to show that it has changed and that ‘truth’ will prevail – history has shown that this is not possible.”