William Noun's arrest is yet another failure of Lebanon's judiciary

5 min read
19 January, 2023
In-depth: The arrest of the activist, a key figure representing the families of the Beirut blast victims, highlights the impunity granted to Lebanon's ruling class by the country's legal system.

Lebanon experienced pockets of protests last week in response to the arrest of William Noun by State Security forces.

Noun is a prominent activist representing the families who lost loved ones in the 4 August 2020 Beirut port blast. He himself lost a brother on that day, Joe Noun, a firefighter who died on duty.

The young activist, alongside the families, have repeatedly called for an investigation into who was responsible for the blast and the origins of its cause.

The explosion took place after a fire detonated over 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, an explosive chemical compound, which had been stored unsafely in a port warehouse for nearly six years.

The blast killed 218 people, injured 7,000, and damaged over half the city.

"The arrest of William Noun clearly shows that Lebanon's judiciary is more interested in protecting those in power and those responsible for [the] Beirut Blast than protecting the public interest"

Noun’s detention last Friday provoked widespread anger as protesters took to the streets to demand his release. Some set up roadblocks in Beirut and Jbeil, Noun’s hometown, to show their outrage at his arrest.

He was later freed after an order given by Beirut Attorney General Judge Zaher Hamadeh. Nevertheless, his detention by the courts was seen as another stain on the deteriorating reputation of the Lebanese justice system, which has lost nearly all credibility in the eyes of most citizens.

“The arrest of William Noun clearly shows that Lebanon’s judiciary is more interested in protecting those in power and those responsible for [the] Beirut Blast than protecting the public interest,” Aya Majzoub from Amnesty International wrote on Twitter.

"Our judiciary is not independent; it's a tool of the political class."

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A battle for the truth

The court’s decision to have Noun apprehended came after alleged remarks he made threatening to "blow up the palace of justice" while criticising attempts to replace the current Judge, Tarek Bitar, with someone more loyal to the ruling elite.

After an outcry from activists, politicians, and family members, Noun was finally released on bail after 24 hours. He assured his supporters that while being detained he was treated with respect, but promised to continue the struggle “as long as the investigation is the target of obstructions”.

He also called on “the judiciary to assume its responsibilities”.

Following Noun’s arrest, prominent politicians and religious figures, including the country’s Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, decried the politicisation of Lebanon’s judicial system.

Rai said the decision to detain Noun was evidence that the judiciary “has become a tool for vengeance, malice and hatred and that security agencies are carrying out police state practices”. Noun has publicly thanked the Patriarch for his role in facilitating his freedom. 

beirut blast afp
No one has been charged or convicted for the deadly explosion. [Getty]

Representative Michel Moawad, an opposition member of parliament and leading candidate for the presidency, condemned how William Noun was treated by security forces in a statement of solidarity with the victims of the port blast. 

“We defend every brother who lost his brother in the port bombing, every family that was displaced, and every employer whose source of livelihood has exploded,” he said. Moawad could be seen embracing Noun at a rally to celebrate the young activist’s release. 

Samy Gemayel, the leader of the Kataeb Party, was also present and criticised the authorities for their callous disregard for the victims’ rights, saying the release of William Noun was a turning point in the battle for truth and justice in the port blast investigation.

“The fact that they are switching roles and turning the victims’ families into criminals means that we have reached the final chapters of the law of the jungle,” he said.

"Relatives of the victims, as well as rights groups, have called for an international investigation, which has been rejected by Lebanese authorities. No one has yet been charged or convicted for the explosion"

Michel Helou, Secretary General of the Lebanese National Bloc, told The New Arab that Noun’s arrest was “an absolute scandal”.

He said those in power are attempting to “kill” the investigation by forbidding the families from protesting their anger at the system’s failure to deliver justice.

The ruling elite are also trying to turn the families of the port blast victims against one another through the possibility of appointing a new judge instead of Tarek Bitar, he added.

Lebanese Forces (LF) member and former minister of social affairs, Richard Kouyoumjian, told The New Arab that Noun’s arrest was part of an intimidation campaign by Hezbollah and its allies, who he accuses of blocking the investigation.

He said that in the past Hezbollah has tried to silence and put an end to Judge Bitar’s legal proceedings, including by way of direct threats.

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In October 2021, a large group of Hezbollah supporters marched to demonstrate against Judge Bitar in the Tayouneh neighbourhood of Beirut, demanding his removal from the case.

Tayouneh is a predominantly Christian area and is sympathetic to the Lebanese Forces. At least seven people were killed and dozens injured as gunfire erupted. Hezbollah said gunmen on rooftops opened fire, blaming the Lebanese Forces. The Christian faction denied the allegations.

Nevertheless, it did not force Bitar’s removal. The investigation, however, has been suspended since December 2021 after politicians the judge attempted to question filed legal challenges.

Relatives of the victims, as well as rights groups, have called for an international investigation, which has been rejected by Lebanese authorities. No one has yet been charged or convicted for the explosion.

Although Noun is free, the fight for an honest judiciary that puts people over the ruling elite is far from complete.

For some, however, this latest incident demonstrates that those who thought of themselves as untouchable are now acutely aware that their hold on power and monopoly over the truth could be cracking.

As William Noun said after his release, “If my voice disturbs them, this means that it has reached them, and our voice is the voice of truth; we respect the law, and demand justice for August 4”.

Adnan Nasser is a foreign policy analyst and journalist with a focus on Middle East politics and relations

Follow him on Twitter: @Adnansoutlook29