'Too many, too brave and too devastated to be silenced': Beirut blast victims announce lawsuit against US-based company
The anniversary of the August 4 Beirut port explosion – the largest non-nuclear explosion in history – is fast approaching, but two years later and there is still no justice for the families of the 218 killed, 7,000 wounded and 300,000 left homeless.
Despite efforts by the Lebanese judiciary, the domestic investigation has been rendered ineffective by political stonewalling.
Disillusioned by the empty promises and lack of integrity displayed by their country’s leaders, many in Lebanon have been exploring any and all avenues available to them in their quest for answers.
The Swiss foundation Accountability Now has announced they are pursuing a USD $25 million lawsuit against American-Norwegian firm TGS ASA, owner of Spectrum, the company responsible for the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that ultimately caused the devastating blast in 2020.
"It was Spectrum that sub-chartered the MV Rhosus in 2013 to bring the ammonium nitrate to the Port of Beirut. When the ship was declared unseaworthy, it was abandoned by both its Russian owner – Igor Grechushkina – and Spectrum, leaving their potentially deadly chemicals trapped aboard a slowly sinking ship"
“When the victims realised that investigation is going nowhere – and their justice had totally stalled – they started looking for creative ways to hold the perpetrators accountable,” Accountability Now lawyer Zena Wakim told The New Arab. “They came to us and [asked] what could be done.
“We did not want to file a frivolous complaint,” she continued. “It took us a lot of effort and time to put the case together. The evidence we uncovered is very strong [and] – if we uncover more evidence through the discovery process – this will certainly help the judiciary in Lebanon to hold [other] perpetrators accountable.”
Accountability Now is a group of international lawyers and legal experts whose mission is to support Lebanese civil society to fight against the perceived corrupt elite, who have long promoted their own interests at the expense of the Lebanese people – a status quo that has existed since the end of the Lebanese Civil War.
Lebanon’s current economic crisis has thrown this into sharp relief. Citizens struggle for even basic necessities as prices skyrocket, while the rich and powerful continue to enjoy lives of luxury.
“If children are taken out of school, the political elites’ kids are in boarding school in the US or in Switzerland [so] it's not their kids,” said Wakim. “When people can't access health care, it's not [their problem] because they can access expensive private clinics. There's a dichotomy between the reality on the ground and their reality.
“They no longer relate to the suffering of people [because] these people are no longer in their lives,” she concluded. “If things don't exist, then you don't need to deal with them.”
Many Lebanese have made their desire for societal reform and greater transparency in their country abundantly clear, through numerous protests and demonstrations. The tragedy of August 4 has galvanised this movement further, but Lebanon’s political class enjoy significant power over the judiciary, shielding them from reprisal.
“On August 4, 2020, I lost my husband, and a piece of myself,” said Tania Daou-Alam, one of the victims participating in Accountability Now’s lawsuit. “It hurts me to say that my expectations of justice being delivered in Lebanon are fading day by day. The judicial system is crippled [due] to the political interference and the persistent culture of impunity.”
Sarah Copland agreed, “They will stop at nothing to ensure the culprits, not the victims, are protected.
The mother of the youngest victim of the blast, two-year-old Isaac Oehlers added, “All we have seen over the past two years in Lebanon is delays, due process violations and political interference.”
As American citizens and relations of American citizens, the nine claimants in Accountability Now’s lawsuit against TGS – which acquired Spectrum in 2012 – are entitled to legal recourse within the US against the company. Spectrum has an operational headquarters in Houston, Texas. As their owners, TGS is liable for any wrongful conduct on their part.
It was Spectrum that sub-chartered the MV Rhosus in 2013 to bring the ammonium nitrate to the Port of Beirut. When the ship was declared unseaworthy, it was abandoned by both its Russian owner – Igor Grechushkina – and Spectrum, leaving their potentially deadly chemicals trapped aboard a slowly sinking ship.
After a protracted legal battle and the repatriation of the remaining crewmembers, the dangerous cargo was subsequently confiscated by Lebanese port authorities in 2014 and warehoused in Hangar 12, where it would remain until the day of the 2020 blast under dubious conditions.
Several current and former senior politicians have been targeted for investigation due to their inaction in dealing with the explosive material, and some have even been charged, but have so far evaded prosecution, refusing interrogation interviews on the grounds of parliamentary immunity and even filing lawsuits against the state to frustrate the legal process.
In Lebanon’s recent parliamentary elections, two lawmakers charged with negligence over the blast – Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, both from the Hezbollah-backed Amal Movement – were re-elected, leaving many afraid of further obstructions of justice. Both deny any wrongdoing.
There have also been multiple attempts to dismiss the leader of the official investigation, Judge Tarek Bitar. His predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, was removed in 2021 over alleged questions regarding his neutrality, a move that outraged both international observers and victims.
“While Judge Bitar is well respected and – I believe – is committed to seeking the truth on behalf of the victims,” said Sarah, “it is clear that the Lebanese authorities – the same authorities who knew the ammonium nitrate was stored unsafely at the port, and that it posed a risk to the city – will do absolutely anything to ensure the investigation is not completed.”
The hope is that the actions of Accountability Now and others like them will pave the way for real justice, creating the means to hold those responsible for August 4 to account. If successful, their case could represent a dramatic step forward, circumventing the deadlock between Lebanon’s judiciary and the country’s seemingly untouchable elite.
“The victims are too many, too brave and too devastated to be silenced,” Daou-Alam insisted. “We want to be heard. What we want is nothing less than justice for every single person who was killed on that day, wounded or traumatised. It is the least we can do.”
Sarah added, “While no dollar figure will ever fix the damage that has been caused, and will never bring my son back. It is important that a company like Spectrum – that profited off bringing the ammonium nitrate to Beirut – are forced to pay reparations to the victims.”
A TGS spokesperson reached out to The New Arab with the following statement: “TGS has been made aware of the lawsuit filed in Texas state court. We deny each and every allegation raised in the lawsuit and intend to vigorously defend this matter in court.
"A formal response to the lawsuit will be filed timely. The allegations in the lawsuit attempt to draw a connection between the incident in Beirut in 2020 to a survey conducted in Lebanon in 2013 by a subcontractor on behalf of Spectrum, which was acquired by TGS in 2019.
"Following the incident in 2020, there were inquiries about the survey conducted in 2013. At that time, a comprehensive investigation was conducted, which confirmed that Spectrum acted diligently in its conduct of the survey and had no responsibility for the Beirut incident. We are confident that we will prevail in this matter.”
Robert McKelvey is a British freelance journalist and culture writer based in Lebanon.
Follow him on Twitter: @RCMcKelvey