Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanese Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najem says there are many reasons to distrust the Lebanese judiciary, but last week’s Beirut bombing is a “chance” for this vital institution to gain public trust by keeping them those responsible responsible.
Many have cast doubt on the ability of the country’s weak judicial authorities to conduct a full and transparent investigation into the devastating blast that killed more than 170 people and injured about 6,000 others. Dozens are still missing.
“Most of the criticism is guaranteed due to the slow pace of work and some politicization, but this case is a chance for the Lebanese judiciary to prove that they can do their job and regain the trust of the people. Najem told Al Jazeera.
Public pressure and international coverage of the blast will also push issues in the right direction, she said.
“It will be difficult for them to do things like they did in the past.”;
The 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that exploded on August 4 were kept in the port of Beirut for nearly seven years with the eventual knowledge of many senior political and security officials – yet nothing was done to prevent such a disaster.
Those who have called for an international investigation include French President Emmanuel Macron and prominent rights groups, as well as many survivors and relatives of the victims.
“We are not in a position today that allows us to give the judiciary a chance,” Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera.
“When you look at the record of the judiciary in the past regarding justice in general and all the serious violations that the Lebanese people have endured, there is simply no trust in something of this magnitude.”
Najem objected: “My starting point is always the Lebanese judiciary because I do not want to create a system where every time there is an important issue I go international. We can use international experts but my role is to try to improve the judiciary here.”
‘Already internationalized’ investigation
Najem said the investigation had already brought in international experts, particularly French police and forensic specialists, to investigate the site of the blast.
The involvement of the French public prosecutor was due to the existence of French victims, she said, giving the investigation an international angle. French Ambassador Bruno Foucher, in a tweet, went so far as to call French involvement “a guarantee of impartiality in investigations and speed.”
Investigations initially began under the military tribunal, and 19 people were arrested including current and former customs chiefs and the head of the Beirut port authority.
The judiciary will question the four former ministers of public works – nominally responsible for overseeing the port – on Friday.
At its last session before Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation on Monday, the cabinet referred the investigation to the judicial council.
The council is Lebanon’s highest court, reserved for issues deemed to affect national security, such as the assassination of former President-elect Bashir Gemayel during the country’s 1975-90 civil war.
Maalouf said the court “lacks transparency and the ability to follow the trial”.
While Najem had proposed a name for a judicial investigator on the council who would take over the investigation once he was appointed, the country’s Supreme Defense Council rejected her election Wednesday, without giving a public explanation.
At the time of publication, no investigator had been selected yet.
Najem said there were two forms of responsibility in this matter, political and legal.
“We did our political responsibility by resigning,” she said. “The legal responsibility is to show who should have done something about it, who should have stopped it, rather than who knew.”
Her ministry was informed of the presence of ammonium nitrate stored in the port of Beirut on July 27 – just over a week before the explosion. But Najem said she was not responsible – her ministry was not concerned with the matter given that there was an issue related to the dangerous cargo already in the Lebanese courts.
“It is not within my competence to intervene,” she said.
Najem added that she realized that people wanted more than accountability; that they wanted revenge by senior officials who knew the highly explosive material – used in bombs and trash – had been there for so many years, but failed to act.
But she said energy must be concentrated first to hold people accountable by law, then change the country’s Byzantine bureaucracy, public administration – and finally the political system that allows such disasters to occur.
“Where this case will eventually go, no one can know,” she said. “The only thing I can say today, as the minister of justice, is that I want justice to be done. I want the truth to be told to the Lebanese people and I want the people in charge to pay for it.
“Not out of revenge, but out of law – as in any other country in the world.”