BEIRUT — London's High Court of Justice has issued a verdict holding chemical trading company Savaro Ltd. liable toward the victims of the Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut port blast, the Beirut Bar Association said in a statement Thursday.
It is the first such verdict holding an entity responsible in the deadly blast, which killed more than 200 people and destroyed parts of the Lebanese capital.
The verdict follows a civil claim filed in 2021 against UK-registered Savaro, which allegedly purchased the cargo of ammonium nitrate that caused the blast.
The case was brought in UK before the High Court of Justice in London, which in June 2022 ordered the company to reveal the identity of its ultimate beneficial owners.
"The court has issued a verdict recognizing the liability of the company Savaro Ltd. towards the victims. It also launched the second stage of the process, which involves determining the amount of compensation to be paid," the Beirut Bar Association said in its statement Thursday.
The legal proceeding was initiated by the former president of the Beirut Bar Association and current MP Melhem Khalaf, in cooperation with other lawyers, including former minister Camille Abousleiman.
In Lebanon, the investigation has been slowed down by a series of political and judicial interferences.
The judge in charge of the investigation, Tarek Bitar, has been targeted by numerous judicial requests and lawsuits seeking his dismissal from the case by officials he is prosecuting, which has repeatedly impeded his work.
Lawyer Camille Abousleiman, who helped initiate the proceedings, told L'Orient-Le Jour that the court retained the responsibility of the British company, which imported the ammonium nitrate.
Civil, rather than criminal, trial
The verdict was made in the context of a civil trial, not a criminal investigation, lawyer and former minister Abousleiman told L’Orient-Le Jour. The London court applied Lebanese law to assign liability to the company.
In its defense, the company insisted that the chemicals were imported in 2014, six years before the deadly explosion, the lawyer said. However, the court did not accept this argument.
The lawyer added that the second phase of the trial, concerning the determination of damages, will also be based on Lebanese law.
He added that elements revealed during the investigation in London could be useful for the Lebanese investigation and that this information will be transmitted to the competent authorities.
Paving the way for further proceedings
Lawyers Nasri Diab and Abousleiman, who are in charge of the lawsuit filed in the United Kingdom, said Thursday that this is “the first court decision that names one of those responsible for the tragedy, which paves the way for the prosecution of others and the opening of other proceedings in Lebanon or abroad,” according to the Beirut Bar Association statement.
The president of the Beirut Bar Association, Nader Gaspard, “hailed an achievement that strengthens the will of the victims and the lawyers to continue in the pursuit of the truth.”
The association’s prosecution office, which provides pro bono defense for the families of many victims in the case, previously succeeded in suspending the de-listing of Savaro from the UK corporate registry. The company therefore continued to be under the close watch of the English court.
Savaro had sought to be delisted from London Companies House in a bid to escape its liability related to the damage caused by the ammonium nitrate that led to the explosion.
In January 2021, Lebanese investigative journalist Firas Hatoum revealed that Savaro had ordered and paid for the shipment of ammonium nitrate. He said that Savaro was a shell company headquartered in Cyprus.
Hatoum’s investigation led him to believe that Hesco Engineering and Construction, which belongs to Georges Haswani, a Syrian businessman close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, shared the same address as Savaro.
The journalist learned that Savaro had an address in the UK and sought to find out the identity of the company that shared the same address to identify the parties implicated.
It later emerged that they all are fictitious, except for one, IK Petroleum Industrial Company Limited. It is owned by Imad Khouri, another Syrian businessman close to Assad, and was founded less than a month before the issuance of the bill of lading of the ammonium nitrate shipment, according to him.
The shipment of ammonium nitrate was carried by the ship Rhosus, which entered Beirut in November 2013 before being detained by the port authorities, under the pretext of technical damage to the cargo vessel.
Unloaded, the ammonium nitrate was then stored in a warehouse inside the port without proper security measures, until the deadly explosions of Aug. 4, 2020.