Women in Lebanon continue their fight for accountability and justice

Women in Lebanon strive for accountability and justice
9 min read
21 December, 2022

When 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port ignited a blast on 4 August 2020, killing more than 220, injuring around 7,000 others, and destroying buildings many miles away, people across the Lebanese capital were thrown into shock and disbelief watching powerlessly a catastrophe that could and should have been avoided.

Lebanese officials were well aware of the dangers of storing the ammonium nitrate at the port, and warnings from customs authority were repeatedly ignored right up until the weeks before the blast. Yet, the huge stockpile had been stored unsafely in a dockside warehouse for almost six years, after the seizure of a cargo ship.

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The available evidence shows that “multiple Lebanese authorities were, at a minimum, criminally negligent under Lebanese law in their handling of the cargo, creating an unreasonable risk to life," according to Human Rights Watch.

"The investigation into what is perceived as the biggest crime in Lebanon’s history has been deflected by the country’s entrenched sectarian political parties"

“The government knew about such danger but didn’t do anything to remove the material,” Mariana Fodoulian, who lost her 29-year-old sister Gaia in the explosion, told The New Arab. “People were left at the mercy of a preventable disaster, this is a crime against humanity."

One of the spokespersons for the families of the Beirut victims, her battle for justice has been persistent since that August more than two years ago. On the 4th of every month, she and dozens of relatives of the victims gather at Lebanon’s main harbour to keep discussing the case so that the Lebanese authorities don’t forget about it.

United in grief and sorrow for their loved ones lost in one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history, the group of families has passed through challenging times since its early formation as individuals affiliated with Shia factions infiltrated the group. Among them, Abbas Ibrahim, one of Lebanon’s most senior generals, attempted to meddle in their quest for truth and justice in the months that followed the tragic incident.

That’s when Mariana began fighting against political interference from within, making sure the victim’s families association is not instrumentalised. “Politicians have been trying to manipulate the families to indirectly protect those officials wanted for questioning over their role in the port tragedy," the representative of the association denounced.

She became wholeheartedly devoted to the case, helping organise protests and mobilising people on social media as part of the families’ campaign for justice.

One year later, she had to give up her job as a veterinarian to better focus on seeking justice for her sister and the others who had lost their lives.

The spokeswoman is angered by the constant “lack of cooperation” and even “hostility” to any investigation from Lebanon’s entire political class. None of the families has been asked to give witness statements, nor have they received any form of official apology, and no officials have been convicted to date.

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Mariana pointed out how any judge leading the probe into the harbour explosion has so far faced obstruction by the implicated officials and attempts to be replaced by politicised judges, with the result of leaving the investigation suspended since the end of last year.

The investigation into what is perceived as the biggest crime in Lebanon’s history has been deflected by the country’s entrenched sectarian political parties.

The first judge assigned to the case, Fadi Sawan, tried in late 2020 to charge the then caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab and three senior cabinet ministers with criminal negligence over the blast. All of them refused to cooperate and tried to discredit Sawan, and then the Court of Cassation followed through by removing him from the investigation in February 2021.

The second judge appointed to lead the investigation, Tarek Bitar, grappled with legal and political hurdles since his takeover. He was suspended multiple times due to lawsuits filed by various politicians he had summoned for interrogation.

He requested MPs' immunity be lifted for suspected parliamentarians and high-level security officers, and asked permission to question top officials including PM-designate Hassan Diab and General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim. Authorities refused to lift immunity or allow for their prosecution.

“Judge Bitar doesn’t represent any political side and has the support of many of the victims’ families,”  Mariana emphasised. “If they let him continue his work, he can hold accountable those responsible."

All the political manoeuvring against Bitar led to the indefinite suspension of his investigation since December 2021.   

That didn’t stop Mariana from staging monthly gatherings and carrying on daily activism together with members of her association, continuing to raise the case in any public space.

“They’re afraid of us. They see that they haven’t managed to divide or stop us,” the families’ representative said. From her observations on the ground, there is a misconception among many Lebanese that the port blast only concerned the direct victims without understanding that it was “an attack on everyone.”

She called for support from the wider population, and advocated for the independence of the judiciary arguing for the need for a “revolution in the courts.”

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International cooperation is also lacking. Dozens of Lebanese and international organisations along with survivors and victims’ relatives have been calling for the establishment of an international, independent investigative mission into the violations related to the Beirut explosion to no avail.

Serious concern remains regarding the Lebanese authorities’ ability and willingness to agree to that, given the scale of the disaster and the decades-long culture of impunity enjoyed by all members of the political class.

Tania Daou-Alam, a Lebanese lawyer and mother of two young boys, was severely affected when her husband, Jean-Frederic Alam, an American citizen, died in the harbour tragedy. Ever since she has been working alongside the victim and family-led movements inside Lebanon for justice.

“The port blast is the perfect example of politicians’ corruption, lack of governance, lack of independence of the judiciary culminating at one time," she commented to The New Arab.

Above all, Tania has engaged in efforts to seek justice internationally due to the “continuous obstruction,” as she put it, of the domestic investigation that makes it incapable of delivering justice credibly.

"Striving to combat impunity, the fearless female collective [the Noun Collective] regularly plans protest actions targeting each of the individuals involved in the case by going to their offices or houses, doing public shaming, and calling for transparency and accountability"

With the support of Swiss-based law firm Accountability Now, she took part last August in a USD $25 million lawsuit filed against American-Norwegian firm TGS ASA, owner of Spectrum, responsible for bringing the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate aboard the shipping vessel into Beirut port in 2013. The legal action was taken by a group of US citizens and relatives of US citizens.

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The advocate together with Zeina Wakim, the international lawyer for Accountability Now, went on a campaign tour in Washington, DC, to meet with members of the US House and Senate as well as senior members of the Biden administration, pressing US leadership to table a fact-finding mission into the Beirut catastrophe and pushing for sanctions on complicit Lebanese officials.

“An international investigation is what we, Lebanese, believe would make a difference," Tania asserted hinting that such an investigative mission would gather evidence that could be used in courts all around the world.

She added that the state is manipulating the situation by trying “to distract people from the investigation” while it is hard for the Lebanese to focus on pressing for the probe as they are preoccupied with meeting their daily needs since their daily life has become very difficult.

The lawyer remarked how tough fighting impunity can be given how endemic corruption is in Lebanese society and politics. On the other hand, she said, the gravity of the 2020 events is such that the Lebanese cannot let it go. “The explosion has killed too many people, we are too broken and too resolved to give up," the attorney opined. “We can’t let what happened go unpunished."

In her view, women have shown a particular determination for justice, including those who were not directly affected by the Beirut case. “They are mothers, sisters, wives. When they are hurt, you will turn them into real warriors,” Tania noted.

Lebanese women are at the frontline of the protest movement speaking up against corruption and injustice. The Noun collective, a women’s group that was born from the 2019 revolution and formed after the August 4 blast, is leading a non-violent fight against the politicians and magistrates who are seeking to hinder the probe into the port incident.

The group, counting some 22 women aged between 22 and 60, mobilises every two weeks or so to protest outside ministries demanding justice and to challenge complicit officials directly.

Elvia Saghbini, a former social worker and active member of Noun, is always on the ground. After the revolution, she stopped working to dedicate her time to the quest for justice for the bombing’s victims.

“This tragedy is the peak of 30 years of wrongdoing by the corrupt political elite. If those responsible aren’t held accountable, there won’t be any hope for justice in Lebanon," she said to The New Arab.

Striving to combat impunity, the fearless female collective regularly plans protest actions targeting each of the individuals involved in the case by going to their offices or houses, doing public shaming, and calling for transparency and accountability.

Most of their actions are carried out as short-notice gatherings to avoid being stopped by police, and they either contact their trusted local media to report or share videos with them to be used in their news broadcasting.

Among the many activities staged by Noun in the past period, Elvia mentioned the gathering outside the house of acting public prosecutor Ghassan Khoury in Rmeileh (southern Lebanon), in September 2021, to denounce his defence of culprits in the investigation.

Members were then attacked and threatened at gunpoint by Khoury’s bodyguards while he was watching from his balcony. Also in September of last year, the women activists rallied close to the residence of parliament speaker Nabih Berri, dressed in black and raising banners that read “Nitrate Parliament” while slamming Berri for not lifting the immunity of MPs to allow for questioning.

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In November 2021, the group sealed the office of judge Habib Mezher of the Court of Appeals with red wax as a symbolic act to underline that Mezher should not hold his current position after he obstructed the work of Judge Bitar. In late December of last year, they plastered posters outside the house of Imad Othman, director-general of the internal security forces, and screened the first minutes of the port bombing in protest against his obstruction of the implementation of a judicial warrant.

Last April, the collective sprayed with red paint the house door of finance minister Youssef Khalil after he refused to sign a decree to appoint six chamber presidents to the Court of Cassation, which would make up the court’s plenary assembly, the condition allowing judge Bitar to resume work.

“We want to confront those individuals blocking the investigation, discredit them in the community," Elvia voiced her tenacity. “We will never stop exposing them."

She observed how it is also important to appeal to the conscience of the “very few” magistrates who stand against impunity.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec