It is the story of a bloody tragedy perceived as the culmination of decades of corruption, disastrous management and complete disregard of the people who, as a result, are suffering today.
The explosion of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port on Aug. 4, 2020, left 218 dead, 7,000 people injured and 3oo,000 deprived of their homes, according to a report from Human Rights Watch published Tuesday.
A year later, the investigation to unravel the complex entanglement that led to the disaster has seen more twists than progress, preventing entire families from mourning their loved ones as they should have.
In a dilapidated yellowed room of the Justice Palace — the symbol of the Lebanese administration’s obsolescence and bankruptcy — a single judge is tackling the task, under the watchful eye of citizens who, for long years, have been living under a regime indulged in impunity, and have as a result lost all faith in justice in their country.
“In the United States, you would have seen an entire building and 400 people assigned to work on a case of this scale,” Bitar told L’Orient-Le Jour a few months ago, seemingly endeavoring to elicit the people's sympathy and patience given the considerable pressure he has been under.
The lead investigator, however, has recently galvanized the public opinion by pointing a finger at top officials who are allegedly implicated in the case, triggering a political and judicial battle that is likely to be fierce.
On July 2, Bitar initiated proceedings for the crime of “homicide with probable intent,” and “negligence” against MPs and former ministers Nouhad Machnouk, Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter; former minister Youssef Fenianos, former army chief Jean Kahwagi; director-general of State Security Tony Saliba; General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim; and Camille Daher, a former head of army intelligence.
Although they may lead to arrest warrants, these charges can be made while the investigation is still ongoing.
At the end of the probe in order to progress the prosecution of these officials, Bitar would have to issue an indictment before referring the case to the Court of Justice, a special court dedicated for crimes committed against the state.
To better grasp the proceedings’ underlying facts, one ought to know that the current investigation’s objectives are threefold.
First, it aims to track down the history of Rhosus, the ship that carried the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, an agricultural fertilizer that can also be used as an explosive, to Lebanon. It asks why did this vessel, which sailed from Georgia, dock at the Beirut port in 2013.
Second, it seeks to determine which officials were responsible for these hazardous materials being stored for so many years in such poor storage conditions in Warehouse 12 at the port.
Finally, it aims to find out exactly what happened on Aug. 4 that caused the warehouse to catch fire, triggering an explosion that was equivalent to the detonation of 600 tons of TNT.
The case is a huge puzzle that is far from being solved, but it at least appears to be coming together in relation to the second aim of the investigation.
In the days that followed the explosion, 30 people were called in for questioning, 25 of whom were taken into custody; eight have since been released. Most of the interrogated people are port officials and employees, including Badri Daher, the director of the Finance Ministry-affiliated customs department and the port’s general director Hassan Koraytem, who works under the supervision of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
It quickly became clear that all these men were aware of the presence and explosive nature of the ammonium nitrate.
What’s more, correspondence spanning several years reveals that the information was conveyed to their administrative superiors, who are none other than the top political and security officials in Bitar’s crosshairs, and who are now hiding behind the so-called parliamentary and political “immunity” — something they claim to have the right to, although this remains debatable.
According to many law experts, immunity should be lifted in cases suggesting acts of intentional negligence.
In order to be able to question senior public servants, Bitar must first obtain permission from Parliament and their line ministers, who are resorting to all sorts of ruses and tactics to put a spoke in the investigation’s wheels.
Isn’t the mere appointment of Bitar the implicit result of these political maneuvers and tricks?
Bitar has been leading the probe since February, when he was appointed to replace his predecessor Judge Fadi Sawwan, who was removed by the Court of Cassation after having wanted to interrogate caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers. Bitar is also pursuing these three.
“If there have been charges, it means that their responsibility in what happened has been proven, which is a progress in the investigation,” Choucri Haddad, lawyer of the families of the explosion victims, told L’Orient-Le Jour on behalf of the Beirut Bar which defends civil parties.
Despite the large number of letters, which L’Orient-Le Jour reviewed, that have been sent between 2013 and 2020 — something that reflects the scale of Lebanese bureaucracy and inaction — no order was ever given to evacuate the ammonium nitrate, even though it was being stored in the heart of the capital.
The latest internal investigation into these chemicals dates back to the end of 2019, following the creation of a State Security office within the port dedicated to the fight against corruption.
A few months after he was appointed at the head of the office, then Captain Joseph Naddaf discovered large bags filled with white power piled up in Warehouse 12, where hazardous materials are stored. The building, however, lacked safety measures. There were holes in its walls and its door was damaged.
In his report, which L’Orient-Le Jour reviewed, Naddaf retraces the history of the chemical: In November 2013, the Rhosus, the ship carrying the ammonium nitrate, docked at the Beirut port. The vessel unloaded the goods due to the condition of the ship it was deemed unsafe to keep the cargo on board. The chemical was seized and stored in Warehouse 12 by court order in 2014.
Naddaf passed the information to his superiors, alongside a strong warning, which could have saved the country from disaster — had it been heeded: “These substances, if ignited, will cause a gigantic explosion that could almost completely destroy the Beirut port.”
In the spring of 2020, Naddaf was commissioned by Ghassan Oueidat, public prosecutor, to interview the port employees in relation to the chemical’s presence.
The men who visited his office had only one thing to say: these materials had been stored in the warehouse by court order since 2014 and there was no new court decision to evacuate them from their location.
Was it a mistake — a deadly one — on part of the judiciary?
In fact, it appears that in order to lift the seizure, the [port’s] customs department had petitioned the urgent matters judge for years, requesting authorization to sell or export the ammonium nitrate.
The judge, however, repeated several times that he did not have jurisdiction over this matter, aware that any goods abandoned for six months at the port become the property of the customs department, which could have acted diligently.
What’s worse, according to a Human Rights Watch investigation published Tuesday titled “They killed us from the inside,” it appears that the judiciary was misled.
The documents HRW gathered reveal that the urgent matters judge gave the initial order to unload the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port in the 2014, based on information from the Directorate of Land and Maritime Transport that downplayed the danger of the cargo, while the directorate had all the reports pointing to its potentially lethal nature.
At the same time, officials within customs, starting with Col. Joseph Skaff, who was assassinated in 2014 in murky circumstances, had asked their management and the Finance Ministry to which they are affiliated over and over again to take the necessary decisions in relation to the extreme threat posed by the chemical.
As it has the authority to oversee and check any explosive goods, the Lebanese Army is also blamed in this matter.
In an exchange of letters, which L’Orient-Le Jour reviewed, back in 2016, the port customs proposed to hand the materials over to the army.
The army declined the proposal, stating that “it did not need them,” shirking any responsibility to evacuate or destroy the ammonium nitrate, although it knew of its explosive nature.
When it came to proper storage of the chemical, the authorities also failed. The judiciary had requested the Ministry of Public Works and Transport to store the chemical in a secured location. Instead, the ammonium nitrate bags, sat side by side next to kerosene, fireworks and other highly flammable materials.
In his last investigation into the case dated May 28, 2020, Naddaf highlighted the deplorable conditions of the warehouse. This prompted Oueidat to order works to secure the premises in a bid to prevent any intrusion or theft from the warehouse of materials that could be used for terrorist purposes.
Oueidat, the country’s chief prosecutor, despite having all the elements of the case in his hands, missed one of the last chances to avert the gigantic explosion that took place in the wake of the repair works on Aug. 4.
The arrival of the Rhosus in Lebanon: coincidence or calculation?
Was the 2013 arrival of the Rhosus in Lebanon an unfortunate quirk of fate or the product of a carefully crafted calculation? In this part of the investigation, international cooperation is imperative given the scale of the case.
According to a source familiar with the case, Bitar is making slow headway, awaiting responses from several foreign countries to which he issued letters.
The Rhosus, a Moldovan-flagged cargo ship registered under five different names, originally set sail from Georgia to Mozambique with 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate owned by Savaro Limited on board.
On the way to its destination, the vessel made stops in Turkey and then in Athens, where the crew, headed by captain Boris Prokoshev, had a longer than planned stopover before receiving last-minute instructions to head to the Lebanese coast.
The instructions came from Igor Grechushkin, a Russian national identified as the owner of the vessel. As he could not afford to pay for the vessel’s passage through the Suez Canal, the latter gave the crew orders to pick up extra cargo from Beirut, in order to secure cash.
Already overloaded, the vessel docked [at the Beirut port] on Nov. 20, 2013 to load an estimated 160 tonnes of seismic equipment, which the Lebanese authorities meant to deliver to Jordan after having used them in oil and gas exploration activities.
But the operation was destined to a hapless fate. The ship’s hold, which was already in poor condition, had cracked and was threatening to collapse completely.
Following the incident, the Lebanese authorities decided to inspect the Rhosus, and spotted numerous anomalies that breached maritime traffic rules. They then decided to keep the vessel from disembarking.
Burdened with debt, Grechushkin disappeared. The ship and its crew were impounded as they waited for the Russian shipowner to settle his debts, but he ended up abandoning the vessel, along with the 2,750 ton ammonium nitrate shipment.
The predicament raises questions. Why did the vessel make all these stops before arriving in Beirut? Why did the Lebanese insist on withholding it, under the pretext that it was severely damaged, while the countries in which it had previously stopped on its voyage did not?
“None of these questions should be put aside, and that is why we are trying to back up the judge. We are mainly trying to find out to whom this shipment of ammonium nitrate really belongs, and how it was paid for,” Haddad says.
Savaro Limited, registered as a chemical trading company in the UK, is identified as the owner of the ammonium nitrate on paper. But in January 2021, an investigation by Lebanese journalist Firas Hatoum aired on the Al-Jadeed television channel revealed that Savaro was actually a shell corporation that shared a London address with other firms linked to three businessmen of dual Syrian and Russian citizenship.
These three are known to the US government for acting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One of them is even under US sanctions for acting as a middleman for Syria’s attempted procurement of ammonium nitrate in late 2013, the same year that the shipment arrived in Beirut.
These suspicions, which have yet to be verified in the current probe, validate the convictions of some Lebanese that an influential person or group in the country had every interest in delivering the ammonium nitrate to Lebanon so that it could reach the Damascus regime, which was accused at the time of dropping barrel bombs — makeshift aerial explosive devices — on its people.
Human Rights Watch exposed evidence that suggests the relevant authorities in Lebanon did not reveal the shipment’s explosive and flammable nature to the judiciary before the judicial order to unload the cargo at the Beirut port was issued. This evidence, coupled with the above-mentioned information, raises the question of whether or not the Rhosus had truly ever been destined for Mozambique..
Moreover, many experts, and most recently the FBI, reached the conclusion that only a portion of the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate blew up on Aug. 4, 2020. Was the remainder of the shipment trafficked, or burned or dispersed in the blast? This question has yet to be answered.
The fire in Warehouse 12
What caused the initial fire in Warehouse 12 that erupted before the terrible blast? Was it an airstrike, an accidental fire or terrorist action? All three options continue to be under thorough examination by the judge, although the first option is expected to be ruled out soon, after a French expert’s report, submitted in early July, excluded the theory that a missile struck the port.
In the aftermath of the explosion, many Lebanese reported having heard the sound of aircrafts ahead of the explosion. That was nothing more than the sound of the blast, which travels faster than the image, according to the French.
The option that welding work conducted at the same day accidentally started the fire remains the most logical, according to this report, which estimated that the chemical powder could have caught fire from sparks or a short circuit.
The warehouse housed a large quantity of flammable materials that should not be stored together: 23 tons of fireworks, tires, methanol, ignition fuses, oils, furniture, wood, foodstuffs and, of course, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. All the conditions were in place for this formidable cocktail to explode at the slightest incident.
The Lebanese authorities have pointed their finger at maintenance works at the warehouse as the most probable cause from the beginning. Salim Chebli, the head of the company [that carried out the works] and his three workers have been detained since shortly after Aug. 4..
According to information obtained by L’Orient-Le Jour, two months ago Bitar was about to order a simulation of the operations conducted with the welding machine used by the workers, but this has not been conducted yet. According to some parts of the documents that L’Orient-Le Jour reviewed, some passages partly discredit the theory that the fire was caused by welding sparks.
First, because the maintenance work on the doors was carried out from outside the building on that day and also because the fire started nearly 50 meters away from the workers’ site.
Nevertheless, there can be no guarantee that no incident, or even a criminal act, could have occurred on this day, as safety measures within the port have been proven to be substandard, according to information obtained by L’Orient-Le Jour.
The workers were not equipped to work near a site where such hazardous substances are stored, and the port authorities did not implement any special measures to secure the warehouse.
Documents reviewed by L’Orient-Le Jour state that one of the workers even recounted that he carried with him to the site a fire extinguisher, because the garbage around the warehouse had caught fire during the works carried out the day before.
Most importantly, work was poorly monitored.
All day on Aug. 3 and in the hours leading up to the blast, the workers had been left unattended to do their job, despite the fact that an employee of the port management was assigned to accompany them through all stages of the maintenance process.
“Ultimately, wherever or however the fire started, the conditions in which the [ammonium nitrate] was stored caused the incident to occur. Had it been stored appropriately there would not have been a deflagration to detonation of that magnitude – if at all. I think trying to find out how the fire started may be one of those unanswered questions,” Gareth Collett, a British engineer and explosives expert for the UN, told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Bitar, meanwhile, says, “I am confident that I will get to the truth no matter the price.”
For their part, the relatives of victims do not harbor any doubts about the judge’s conviction. Yet, in the face of the politicians’ determination to sabotage the investigation, they do not indulge in wishful thinking.
“This fake problem about immunity just adds to the people’s anger and makes them sick,” said Antoine Najm, whose mother lost her life in the explosion.
“Judge Bitar is making outstanding efforts, but there are a lot of honest people in this country and we have seen what ended up happening to them. Things will not change overnight,” Najm says, hoping that the next legislative elections will result in a new system.
This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub and Joelle El Khoury.