It is now called the William Noun case. Last weekend the brother of Joe Noun, who lost his life in the explosion at the port of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, along with some 230 other people, was detained. For more than two years, Noun has been demanding justice for his brother, alongside the families of the victims. He has not stopped fighting, begging, pleading, for justice to take its course and identify those responsible. He finally let his anger explode a few days ago, against a political class clearly determined to bury the file. These politicians have tied the hands of Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator for wanting to question several political and security officials — including former ministers Ghazi Zeaïter and Ali Hassan Khalil, who are close to the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.
During a recent demonstration with other victims’ families, Noun entered Beirut’s Justice Palace, where they are accused of breaking windows. During a television broadcast last Thursday, he again lost his temper, and is accused of saying that he was “ready to blow up the Justice Palace.” It did not take long for Judge Zaher Hamadeh, the public prosecutor at the Court of Appeal in Beirut, to make a decision. This prosecutor, who is close to Berri, called for Noun to be arrested for endangering state security. Judge Hamadeh instructed the State Security Department — headed by Tony Saliba, close to former President Michel Aoun, and himself called for questioning by Judge Bitar and shielded from the investigation — to make the arrest. Noun has been free on bail since Saturday afternoon. However, this morning he was scheduled to report to the Barbar al-Khazen barracks in Verdun for further questioning, along with twelve others accused of breaking the law.
Between the pros and cons, the controversy erupted
Few in the public or the political class are indifferent to Noun’s case. It reflects the tug of war between the families of the victims of the Aug. 4 blast and Lebanese authorities who are trying by all means, the justice system included, to undermine the movement’s case. It is also at the heart of a quarrel that has inflamed social media and divided the political class concerning how appropriate it is to arrest a young activist protesting being denied justice. It is as if the polarization of pro-March 8 and pro-March 14 alongside the MPs of the protest movement, had been revived. It is a polarization that left the Free Patriotic Movement on the sidelines.
On the one hand, those who minimize the importance of Noun’s arrest consider the censure appropriate, or accuse him, through his words and actions, of actually posing a danger to state security. These are mainly Hezbollah allies. Through caretaker Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada, this camp openly “defends itself from any intervention,” claiming to be “against anything that could lead to chaos.” A ministerial source close to Hezbollah told L’Orient-Le Jour that “Judge Hamadeh has pursued legal procedures appropriate in this kind of situation.” An observer in the same camp believes that “the arrest of William Noun would only be a warning to the families of the victims against any future escalation, especially with the arrival of the European judicial delegation.” (While a delegation is investigating financial malpractice in which BDL governor Riad Salameh is accused to have been involved, France has also sent a judge to look into the port investigation.)
Khalaf denounced an arbitrary arrest
Those who defend Noun include the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb and MPs from traditional parties or popular protest who openly protested his arrest and participated in the sit-in of the families of the victims at State Security’s Ramlet al-Baida headquarters. The protesters include MPs Elias Hankash, Ibrahim Mneimneh, Mark Daou, Melhem Khalaf, Salim Sayegh, Razi al-Hajj, and Najat Aoun. For the Kataeb leader Sami Gemayel, the arrest is part of a “plan to close the port file and silence the families of the victims.” The former president of the Beirut Bar Association, MP Melhem Khalaf, denounced the arrest as “arbitrary.” LF MP Ziad Hawat called for the “closure of all roads” Friday evening, pointing the finger at “a malfunctioning and politicized justice.” As for MP Marwan Hamadeh, close to the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, he said that “the way of dealing with William Noun is a new assassination targeting all Lebanese,” and that Lebanon is “on the verge of a revolt much more important than that of 2019.” The Secretary General of the National Bloc, Michel Helou, considered Noun’s arrest to be not only “contrary to the law, but also to all human and moral standards.”
The FPM has ‘no allies’ in this matter
Between these two poles, the FPM, led by Gebran Bassil, seems torn. While it does call on justice to do its duty, it has been visibly embarrassed by the role played by State Security in Noun’s arrest and the position of Hezbollah.
“In this matter we have no allies. We are against the detention of William Noun and want to know the truth about the port tragedy,” said FPM MP Jimmy Jabbour Saturday. Jabbour defended the State Security head, however, stressing that he was “only carrying out an order issued by the judiciary.”
The party founded by Michel Aoun is sparing no effort to free the imprisoned former customs director Badri Daher, to whom it is close.
“No matter how arrogant you are, you can’t stop justice. We will continue to fight to uncover the truth about the port and to release those who were unjustly arrested,” Bassil tweeted. As his relations with Hezbollah hang by a thread — due to its disagreement with the party over the presidential election and antipathy to the Amal Movement — he did not hesitate to sharply criticize his Amal and Hezbollah.
“You can manipulate some puppet judges, but Lebanon will always have disobedient patriotic judges,” concluded the FPM leader, in a clear reference to Hezbollah and Amal’s apparent intervention in the judiciary.
This story was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour, translated by Joelle Khoury.