Some 100 people responded Thursday to the call of the victim's relatives to demonstrate on the sidelines of Parliament’s presidential election session.
“Today we are not here to talk, but to observe,” said William Noun, a leader of the victim's relatives’ movement, whose brother Joe, a firefighter, perished in the blast.
“We are here to see which MPs will support our cause,” he said.
For more than a year now, political interference has stalled the blast investigation.
Demonstrators brandished banners with slogans like “Obstructing the investigation is also a crime,” or “The criminal political class is blocking justice,” and portraits of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Amal Movement MPs Ghazi Zeaiter and Hassan Khalil, the latter having been implicated in the investigation on charges of negligence.
The victims’ relatives are calling for the continuation of the probe by lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar, an independent judiciary, and for MPs who support this cause to sign their petition.
“Today, Parliament is asked to urgently amend the article allowing suspects to hinder the investigation, allowing criminals to launch procedures and appeals at will,” the petition read.
“The judiciary must be freed from the political yoke in order to hold accountable those who commit crimes against the Lebanese people. Parliament should also pass the law on the independence of the judiciary as soon as possible.”
“We are asking those MPs who have decided to be with us to sign a petition to prioritize the port probe and push for the amendment or passage of any legislation that would guarantee the continuation of the investigation. For our part, we will publish the names of all MPs who have decided to commit to our cause,” the document added.
Following the parliamentary session, MPs were expected to join the sit-in of the victims' families.
“All MPs who support our cause must confirm that from now on they will do everything in their power to ensure that our demands are heard,” Tracy Naggear told L’Orient-Le Jour. Her daughter , Alexandra, was one of the blast’s youngest victims.
“Of course, we are not talking here about the MPs who are blocking the investigation or those who are covering up for people like Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter,” she added.
The demonstrators brandished portraits of family members killed in the port blast, but also that of Lokman Slim, an outspoken Hezbollah critic who was assassinated on Feb. 4, 2021, in South Lebanon.
“The investigation into the explosion has been completely blocked for a year,” lamented Monika Borgman, Slim's widow. “The investigation into Lokman's murder is underway, but so far no assassin has been identified.”
“If we can't find justice in Lebanon, we must look for it elsewhere,” she added.
Welcoming the sit-in of the victims’ relatives, Borgman insisted on the need to “mobilize,” adding that “this is not the only solution.”
It is necessary “to destroy the culture of impunity,” she said.
The action of the victims’ relatives was planned in two stages. First, opposition MPs were to invite other legislators to join the sit-in after Thursday’s session. Then they were to sign the petition.
Some opposition MPs did join the families. Others made a separate intervention. After the adjournment, MPs Melhem Khalaf and Najat Saliba, later joined by their colleagues Firas Hamdan and Cynthia Zarazir, decided to camp out inside Parliament to pressure Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to hold an open election session until a president is elected.
Some demonstrators criticized the MPs’ action, saying they did not understand the timing of their move.
“The plan was half-fulfilled. A statement was read in Parliament and the call for MPs to join the families of the victims was made,” said Paul Naggear, Alexandra’s father.
Kataeb leader Samy Gemayel, among others, proposed to sign a statement in support of victims’ relatives and for the independence of the judiciary.
The MPs are to finalize the signing of the document in the coming days.
“Protest movement MPs will share the document with their colleagues, so that as many MPs as possible can sign it,” Paul Naggear added.
Thursday’s sit-in was organized in the wake of Monday’s arrest of 13 members of the victim’s relatives’ movement, charged with vandalism during a heated demonstration in front of Beirut’s Justice Palace Dec. 10.
Following questioning, all detainees were released on bail.
Noun, who was among those apprehended, had been arrested Friday by State Security for threatening to “blow up the Justice Palace” while on a television talk show.
“The detention of some of the victims’ relatives last week has actually served our cause,” said Rita Hitti, several of whose relatives were firefighters killed in the port explosion. “These detentions were like a wake-up call for the Lebanese.”
This story was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour, translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.