5:09 p.m., July 31, 2022, modified at 2:35 p.m., August 1, 2022
Tuesday, at the Lawyer’s House in Beirut. Like every week, about twenty members of the bar are gathered. Melhem Khalaf, the 59-year-old former Bâtonnier, thinning hair and imposing build, chairs the meeting. That day, it is about the file of Savaro Ltd, the fictitious company importing the cargo of ammonium nitrate at the origin of the gigantic explosion which occurred on August 4, 2020 at the port of Beirut. In the aftermath of the disaster, Melhem Khalaf had called them all to form his “task force”. An accusation office made up of the best black dresses in the country, deployed to “clearing tracks” in support of the official investigation.
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The former humanitarian, co-founder in the 1980s of the Lebanese NGO Offrejoie, knows this. The battle for truth will be long. In Lebanon, the crimes and attacks perpetrated since the beginning of the civil war (1975-1990) have all gone unpunished. While the country, still deeply bruised, commemorates Thursday the second anniversary of the tragedy of the port which left more than 200 dead, 6,000 injured and ravaged entire sections of the Lebanese capital, the investigation which involves the highest officials of the State is paralyzed.
A “remarkable commitment”
On August 4, 2020, Melhem Khalaf was in his office at the courthouse, 1 kilometer as the crow flies from the port, when the monster glowing with smoke rose into the sky, shattering the windows of the whole building. The president of the bar immediately mobilizes his troops. His first instinct is to call the Attorney General and the Minister of Justice to request the sealing of the site of the explosion, a crater 43 meters deep in the middle of a tattered industrial area. Above all, in order to “guarantee compensation for victims”he demanded that the investigation be entrusted to the court of justice, not to a military tribunal, as several political leaders wanted.
In addition to the prosecution office, whose members attend the hearings of the investigation, 150 lawyers are responsible for receiving complaints from victims. Mobile offices are set up in the areas most affected by the explosion. In total, nearly 1,400 cases will be investigated on a voluntary basis. “His commitment from the first hours was remarkablerecognizes the lawyer and activist Wassef Haraké. He wanted to put an end to attempts by certain parties to politicize or interfere in the work of justice. He has assembled a large team of lawyers deployed on the ground alongside the population. » Victims, injured or not, and relatives of the disappeared follow one another in the office of this humble man steeped in idealism who finds time for everyone. “Melhem Khalaf is the only high-ranking person who called us when our child died”says Tracy Najjar, whose 3-year-old daughter died in the explosion.
He wanted to cut short attempts at politicization or interference by certain parties
At the beginning of July, when the immense silos of the port began to burn under the effect of the heat*, reviving the traumatisms of the inhabitants, Melhem Khalaf was there. This time, with his MP cap. The lawyer is among 11 candidates elected to parliament in May, members of independent parties born in the wake of the 2019 uprising against the corrupt political class. With three other elected officials, he organized a press conference last Sunday in front of the wheat reservoirs, urging the authorities to preserve these structures that the victims would like to transform into a memorial. While the investigation is blocked, they fear that the drama will eventually fall into oblivion. None of the senior officials charged, some of whom were even re-elected in the last legislative elections, has so far agreed to appear. Worse, the ministers and civil servants targeted have multiplied the appeals against judge Tarek Bitar, in charge of the investigation. No less than 21 actions are currently initiated against him, freezing the investigation.
A paralyzed investigation
For it to be able to resume, the Court of Cassation would have to rule on the divestiture of the magistrate. However, the process of appointing the presidents of the chambers of this body has not been finalized, blocked until now by the Minister of Finance – close to the Shiite formation Amal, a party allied with Hezbollah – whose signature is required. Suspected of having organized, if not covered up, the transport of ammonium nitrate to transform it into barrels of explosives intended for Bashar El-Assad so that he can bomb Syrian cities, the party of God is singled out by many observers of the file.
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A few months after the explosion, the Lebanese researcher Lokman Slim had also denounced in the local media the involvement of the militia financed by Tehran. He was assassinated on February 4, 2021. “There is a firm will not to let the investigation take its course”storm Melhem Khalaf, lambasting “the interlocking of legal engineering” which politicians have been engaged in for months to obstruct the investigation. Faced with this paralysis, his prosecution office does not want to let go. In March, the lawyers launched an action for abuse of rights against two of the indicted ministers challenging the legitimacy of the judge.
There is a firm will not to let the investigation take its course
Mid-June, they scored a small victory. Following a lawsuit filed a year ago by several lawyers, the High Court in London ordered the company Savaro Ltd, which would belong to a Syrian businessman close to the Assad regime, to reveal the identity of its true owner. To escape prosecution, the firm demanded its voluntary removal from the English commercial register. “We managed at the last moment to prevent the dissolution of the company”says Melhem Khalaf.
Of the “information” crucial could come out in the next few months, he hopes. A question mark remains, however, concerning the support of the international community. Relatives of the victims call for an investigation with the UN. But according to Human Rights Watch, France has not yet given the green light. Melhem Khalaf deplores the lack of cooperation of foreign capitals with the prosecution office, a “abandonment” which he attributes to realpolitik. “I am no longer addressing the States, they have their own interests”, says the former president. Three times he wrote to the United Nations Secretariat asking for satellite photos of the site of the explosion. The same request has been made to several countries, including the United States, France and Russia. Requests so far remained a dead letter.
* Part of the grain silos finally collapsed this Sunday following a fire and a few days before the second anniversary of the exhibition in the port of Beirut. The authorities had recommended evacuating the area, wearing masks and not ventilating the accommodation, in case these tanks collapsed.