Middle East

A year later, Beirut blast victims push leaders for justice

BEIRUT (AP) — After the massive explosion at Beirut’s port a year ago, only a small part of Ibrahim Hoteit’s younger brother was identified: his scalp. His brother was a large man, a firefighter, a martial arts champion, but Hoteit buried him in a container the size of a shoe box.

Since then, Hoteit has sold his business and sleeps only a few hours a night.

One thing drives him now: winning justice for the victims of the August 4, 2020, explosion that killed more than 214 people and punishing Lebanon’s political elite, blamed for causing the disaster through their corruption and mismanagement.

“I don’t see a minister or president or parliament speaker. I am seeing the person who killed my brother and others with him,” Hoteit said.

Hoteit and his wife, Hanan, have built an association of more than 100 families of those killed. They are waging a campaign of protests trying to force politicians to allow the truth to come out.

A year later, critics say the political leadership has succeeded in stonewalling the judicial investigation that was launched to uncover what happened in the explosion and who was responsible. Aiming to get around the barriers, another group of families is calling for an international fact-finding mission by the UN Human Rights Council.

President Michel Aoun said no one will have political cover if they are found negligent or guilty but has not addressed accusations that officials are obstructing the investigation.

Hoteit and other families say they are up against not just a government but the entire political system that has ruled Lebanon for more than 30 years. It’s a system that protects itself so intensely it seems invulnerable, even as many Lebanese say it has led the country into ruin — pointing to both the explosion and a financial meltdown that is one of the world’s worst in the past 150 years.

The blast was preceded by a fire that broke out at the port, and hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a hangar along with other highly combustible materials exploded.

It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Along with the dead, thousands were injured. Some 300,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Painted on a wall opposite the still mangled port, a large slogan declares, “My government did this.”

It soon emerged from documents that the ammonium nitrate had been stored improperly at the port since 2014 and that multiple high-level officials over the years knew of its presence and did nothing.

Since the end of the civil war in 1990, the former warlords in that conflict have run Lebanon, heading sectarian-rooted factions. They have divvied government offices up among themselves, and their patronage system has fomented widespread corruption. Though rivals, the factions close ranks to prevent accountability.

Hoteit’s brother Tharwat was among the group of firefighters who rushed to battle the initial blaze. All were killed.

Hoteit and Hanan spent the next 12 days searching through hospitals for his brother. They turned over bodies to see their faces.

Along the way, they met other families on the same grisly search. They continued to communicate, first through a WhatsApp group, trading stories of their loved ones.

Then they organized to fight.

At first, the group held vigils outside the port on the 4th of every month to remind the public of the demands of justice.

But as the investigation stalled, the group changed tactics, turning to protests.

Their first angry protest, burning tires and blocking roads, came after the political leadership succeeded in removing the first chief of the investigation into the explosion, Fadi Sawwan. Politicians gained a court order for his removal after he named three former senior ministers and the caretaker prime minister to be charged with negligence leading to death. The caretaker prime minister has dismissed the allegations as “diabolical.”

A new chief investigator was swiftly named: Tarek Bitar, a younger judge with no clear political affiliations.

Bitar cast a wider net, pursuing even senior military, intelligence and security officers. In February, he asked the government and parliament to lift immunity from the heads of two main security agencies and two lawmakers so he could question them.

The families were elated.

But the political elite again closed ranks. Lawmakers and government officials refused to lift immunity. The interior minister said his legal department advised against it, reportedly because the security agency in question was not responsible for the shipment.

So the families began protests targeting parliament members and officials they accuse of burying the truth. In TV ads and social media posts, they branded those who opposed lifting immunity as “the ammonium nitrate lawmakers.”

On Monday, the families gave officials until Tuesday afternoon for immunity to be lifted or else they would give a “bone-crushing” response, though they did not elaborate.

With his black T-shirt, jeans and hair slicked back, Hoteit has become synonymous with calls for justice. The 51-year-old-father of three coordinates with local groups to document and archive every piece of information on the blast and has met with several of the politicians he has led protests against.

A domestic reckoning may be the only way to bring down the wall of impunity and break Lebanon’s ruling system, Hoteit says.

“If this doesn’t bring about change, nothing will.”

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