Lebanon’s authorities publicly promised an investigation into the blast that killed more than 200 people and devastated half the city would take five days, but six months later, the public is still waiting for answers.

Smoke rises from the site of an explosion in Beirut's port area, Lebanon, August 4, 2020.
Smoke rises from the site of an explosion in Beirut's port area, Lebanon, August 4, 2020. (Reuters)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for justice over a devastating Beirut port explosion amid a stalled investigation into last year's deadly tragedy.

The blast was caused by a fire that ignited nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a port warehouse on August 4, 2020. One of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, the force tore through the city, sending people flying across rooms and slicing them with flying glass.

Lebanese authorities have failed in the past six months to deliver any justice for the catastrophic explosion at Beirut’s port, HRW said on Wednesday.

Victims are still awaiting the result of the investigation into why 2,750 tonnes of potentially explosive material were stored unsafely at the port, which is surrounded by residential areas, for more than six years.

READ MORE: Massive fire erupts in Beirut port a month after deadly blast

For some, the explosion and the state's handling of its aftermath are an indictment of politicians who have led Lebanon as it lurches from crisis to crisis.

Several senior officials have been detained, including the port's general manager and head of customs.

Fadi Sawan, the judge investigating has also charged Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers with negligence on December 10. 

The four were charged with "negligence and causing death to hundreds and injuries to thousands more" in the first such official indictment against a prime minister in office in Lebanese history, the judicial source said.

The decision by judge Sawan came after the investigation confirmed the suspects had received "several written notices warning them against postponing the disposal of ammonium nitrate fertiliser," the source said.

Diab, whose cabinet resigned over the August blast after taking office in early 2020, said his conscience was clear and accused the judge of breaching the constitution.

READ MORE: Lebanon PM Diab, ex-ministers indicted over port blast

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'Public still waiting for answers'

But the investigation into the deadly blast has been paused since December 17, 2020 after two former ministers charged in the case filed a motion asking Lebanon’s Court of Cassation to replace the investigating judge, Sawan.

When the investigation will resume is not clear.

“Lebanese authorities publicly promised that the investigation into the blast that killed more than 200 people and devastated half the city would take five days, but six months later, the public is still waiting for answers,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at HRW. 

“Moreover, the court handling the case appears to have run roughshod over detained defendants’ due process rights, signalling that it is unable or unwilling to deliver justice.”

Lebanon should urgently pass bills to guarantee the independence of the judiciary and to ensure that criminal procedures meet international standards, HRW said.

“Denying defendants due process does nothing to achieve justice for the victims of the blast,” Majzoub said. “An international, independent investigation as well as urgent reforms to Lebanon’s judicial processes, are the best guarantee that the people will get the answers they deserve.”

The Court of Cassation said on January 11 that Sawan can resume his investigation until it decided on the ex-ministers’ motion to replace him; however, judicial proceedings are on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic lockdown until at least February 8.

READ MORE: How Beirut’s port became home to a floating bomb

What caused the explosion?

Security officials warned the prime minister and president in July that the ammonium nitrate stored at the port posed a security risk and could destroy the capital if it exploded, according to documents seen by Reuters and senior security sources.

A high-ranking security official told Reuters in August that the fire spread due to sparks from welding. 

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, which sent investigators to Beirut to help, said in October it had reached no firm conclusion about what caused the explosion. Other US and European government agencies closely following the investigations strongly believe that the blast was accidental.

READ MORE: Exclusive: EU set for deeper intervention plan in Lebanon

A Reuters investigation last year into the Beirut blast that killed 200 people found that the huge shipment of ammonium nitrate fertiliser that exploded had been held in Beirut while en route to Mozambique. The Mozambican buyer, FEM, identified the company it bought it from as Savaro.

READ MORE: Lebanon hires firm to clear dangerous material from shattered Beirut port


Even in a country that has seen many wars and bombings, never had so many people — tens of thousands — directly experienced the same traumatising event at the same time.

It came on top of the stress that the Lebanese were already feeling from multiple crises, including an unprecedented economic meltdown, the coronavirus pandemic and a feeling of helplessness after nationwide protests against corruption that failed to achieve their goals.

Fractious politicians have been unable to agree on a new government in Lebanon since the last one quit in the aftermath of the Beirut blast, leaving Lebanon adrift as poverty spreads.

READ MORE: Beirut blast worsens financial, health conditions for Lebanese women

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READ MORE: In post-explosion Lebanon, Hezbollah has the most to lose

Source: TRTWorld and agencies