Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator of the Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut port blast probe, has refused to reveal any information about his findings, though his handling of the case has come under criticism.
There has been an important international development recently, involving a Danish fuel trading firm mentioned in the port case, a development that may revive a theory implicating the Syrian regime.
A Danish court convicted Dan Bunkering Ltd and its CEO on Dec. 14 for selling fuel to two Russian companies, which was ultimately delivered to the Syrian port of Banias, thereby breaking European Union sanctions against Syria.
The cargo fuelled Russian warplanes that bombed rebel-held areas at the height of the conflict, the Danish court said, adding that the company made more than 30 such deliveries from 2015 to 2017.
It turns out that this company had also sold fuel to the managers of the Rhosus, the ship that carried a sizable shipment of ammonium nitrate to Beirut port, portion of which exploded seven years later, on Aug. 4, 2020.
It was Dan Bunkering that requested the seizure of the Rhosus, shortly after the cargo vessel moored at Beirut port in November, 2013, citing outstanding debts. The seizure prevented the ship from leaving port, initiating a process that ended in tragedy.
Speaking to L'Orient-Le Jour, two sources familiar with the port blast case said they strongly doubt that the unpaid debts related to the fuel sale, the conclusion of which generally settles outstanding accounts – the reason behind the seizure.
“Why would the Danish company agree to extend credit?” one of the sources asked. In any case, since it stopped in Piraeus for a long period to refuel before heading to Beirut, the company could have claimed its rights while the ship was in Greece.
Why did the company only request the ship’s seizure when it entered Lebanese territorial waters? The same sources suggest that this legal action could have served as a pretext to detain the ship in Beirut (Mozambique having been its intended destination), while unloading its cargo of ammonium nitrate.
If proven, this assertion would give the Danish company a leading role in keeping the hazardous materials in Warehouse 12.
Furthermore, since the seizure order was eventually lifted, a lawyer following up on the case noted, who paid off the ship’s alleged debts? Was it the vessel’s owner or Savaro Ltd, the owner of the ammonium nitrate?
An investigation by the journalist Firas Hatoum, broadcast on Al-Jadeed in January 2021, concluded that Savaro Limited is a shell company providing cover to another firm owned by Syrian businessman George Haswani, a henchman of the Syrian regime. Haswani’s company is itself a subsidiary of Stroytransgaz, a firm owned by Gennady Timchenko, a Russian billionaire with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In a bid to answer the above-mentioned questions, L’Orient-Le Jour contacted Samir Baroudy, an attorney at Baroudy & Associates law firm, who represents Dan Bunkering. He refused to comment.
For their part, the above-mentioned sources claimed that there were points of intersection between the Rhosus and those ships owned by Dan Bunkering that the Danish court accused of supplying fuel to Syrian-based Russian warplanes.
“One of the fuel deliveries provided to the Russian intermediaries was made in Piraeus, which is where the Rhosus was also provisioned,” Firas Hatoum told L’Orient-Le Jour.
He added that the fuel tanker destined for Syria took the same route as the Rhosus – which is the route between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus.
“There are many similarities and others (shell companies, links to Russia, etc),” Hatoum says, “which, if not irrefutable proof of Syrian parties’ involvement in the Beirut port blast, are still questions that the investigation must address.”
Speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity, a lawyer expressed the same opinion. “Dan Bunkering’s conviction is an important lead,” he said. “Once Tarek Bitar resumes the investigation, he will have to study this development, by sending a formal request asking the Danish judiciary to question the convicted company about the circumstances of the ammonium nitrate’s arrival to Beirut port.”
On Dec. 21, judge Bitar’s investigation was suspended for the umpteenth time, after he was notified of a new lawsuit to remove him from the probe , this one lodged on Dec. 15 by former ministers Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil, both members of the Amal Movement, who have been summoned for questioning.
Neither subdivided nor incomplete
The accumulation of evidence pertaining to the international facets of the port blast investigation is significant since, ostensibly, judge Bitar does not intend to issue an indictment before all investigations, at home and abroad, are completed.
Also, it is important that the various states that have received such formal judicial requests since Bitar was appointed to lead the probe should actually reply to them. So far, most of them have received no response.
It is important for Bitar to be given a break between the lawsuits that summoned officials file against him, evidently to prevent Bitar from prosecuting them. Otherwise he will not be able to carry on with his investigation.
In this vein, a senior judicial source underscores that judge Bitar will not issue an indictment that is “subdivided or incomplete,” because that is prohibited under the Code of Criminal Procedure. According to the source, the issuance date could be delayed for months due to the hurdles standing in the judge’s way.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle Khouri