As the Lebanese investigation into the Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion remains in a deadlock, hope has been renewed among the families of the 235 victims to see at least some form of justice.
A court in Houston, Texas will examine the civil liability of Spectrum Geo Ltd, a company specializing in the provision of seismic data to oil exploration companies. The company is the target of a lawsuit filed in July 2022 by around 10 aggrieved individuals.
This information was disclosed on Wednesday by Challenges, a French weekly magazine, which reported that the US jurisdiction declared last month that it is the appropriate body to investigate the role of this British company — acquired by US-Norwegian group TGS Nopec Geophysical — in unloading the cargo of ammonium nitrate that sparked the deadly explosion.
Before unloading, Spectrum Geo had worked with the Ministry of Energy and Water, headed at the time by Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), as part of a plan for offshore exploration in Lebanon and mapping of natural reservoirs at sea. After the contracts were concluded with the ministry, the company wanted to return its seismic survey equipment to Jordan, where one of its subsidiaries is based. To do so, they used the ship Rhosus, which was transporting the ammonium nitrate from Georgia to Mozambique.
Following this request, the Rhosus, despite being in a decrepit state and overloaded with ammonium nitrate, had made a detour to Beirut. The loading of heavy and bulky equipment further damaged the ship, prompting the parties involved to unload the equipment and the ammonium nitrate.
According to a lawyer involved in the case, questions about the choice of the ship and the real reasons behind unloading the cargo is what led victims’ families to file their lawsuit, seeking compensation worth $200 million. Among these 10 plaintiffs are Tania Daou Alam, whose husband Jean-Frederic (Freddy) died in the blast, and Sarah Copeland, the mother of Isaac, the youngest victim, aged two.
Dismissal of TGS’s motions
The above-mentioned lawyer spoke to L’Orient-Le Jour about the US court’s decision, which he has seen and described as “significant breakthrough.”
“The judge first rejected the Forum non conveniens presented by the TGS group to prevent [the court] from taking over the case,” the lawyer said.
He explained that through this motion, the aforementioned group alleged that, instead of the US courts, the British and Lebanese courts are the ones that must handle the case, as Spectrum is a British company, and the incident occurred in Lebanon.
According to the lawyer, “Had the judge accepted TGS’s motion, he would have dismissed the victims’ lawsuit and would not have examined the case. However, by rejecting the motion, he thus confirmed that [the court] is of competent jurisdiction,” he added.
In addition to this first successful step, the judge also rejected the motion to dismiss submitted by the TGS group,” the lawyer said.
“This action involves a party targeted by the lawsuit asking the judge to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims on the grounds that even if all the facts they allege are correct, they still do not constitute a violation of the law,” he said.
“By not accepting this request, the judge considered that the plaintiffs’ complaint is valid. Therefore, the trial can proceed,” he said.
Discovery, or mandatory evidence-gathering, can now take place
It is primarily the discovery or disclosure process, under which the parties involved in a lawsuit are required to disclose all documents in their possession, whether they are advantageous or not, that could work on behalf of the victims.
“TGS group should provide all documents they hold, including correspondence, records, and any communications with politicians before the actual trial begins,” said a lawyer involved in the case. He added that “withholding evidence constitutes a criminal offense.”
Accountability Now, a Swiss organization that combats impunity and corruption (and founded by Zeina Wakim, the lawyer representing the victims in the court in Houston) stated on Thursday: “Full discovery will commence with the expectation of an eventual jury trial in the US (…)”
“Earlier this month, TGS agreed to turn over all relevant documents relating to the Rhosus, explosives, its seismic operations as well as its dealings with Lebanese politicians, entities or individuals inside or outside Lebanon, in any way connected to the blast (…), Wakim posted on X (formerly Twitter).
Speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour, Wakim said that the case “can facilitate the discovery of all the factors and networks that led to the blast.” She noted that “the US justice system is very powerful, especially when it comes to investigations,” and she believes that “beyond TGS’s responsibility, the information gathered through this method could be used in other legal proceedings to uncover the truth.”
Her aforementioned colleague raised the possibility of TGS considering a “settlement” with the plaintiffs. “If the company realizes that it has little chance of winning the lawsuit, given incriminating documents, it could propose to provide compensation without claiming responsibility.”
The lawyer pointed out that since TGS is financially well-endowed, the victims could potentially receive substantial compensation, unlike the case of Savaro Ltd.
In February 2023, following a lawsuit filed by the Beirut Bar Association, through Dechert LLP law firm, which includes former minister Camille Abousleiman, a British court found Savaro Ltd liable in the delivery of the ammonium nitrate cargo. In June, the court ordered the company to pay around $1 million in damages to the families of the victims of the 2020 blast who had filed a complaint. However, these families know that they are unlikely to receive this amount, as the company in question is a shell company.
International procedures represent a breakthrough in the solid wall erected by the political and judicial class against the Lebanese investigation led by investigative judge Tarek Bitar. Judge Bitar has faced significant obstacles for the past 20 months, and these international developments provide a glimmer of hope for progress in the investigation.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.