Lebanon gov’t on brink of collapse – what is Hezbollah’s role? -analysis

Tensions have spiked in Lebanon as Justice Tarek Bitar, who is leading the investigation into the 2020 Beirut Port blast, issues charges and warrants against a number of high-ranking officials, including Hezbollah allies.

What is driving the tensions and what is Hezbollah’s role in the matter?

Bitar is the second judge to run the judicial investigation into the explosion, in which more than 200 people were killed and thousands wounded after a large amount of ammonium nitrate improperly stored at the port caught fire and detonated in one of the largest nonnuclear explosions in human history.

The first judge, Fadi Sawan, was removed from the case on charges of “legitimate suspicion” over his neutrality, due to the fact his home was damaged in the blast. Sawan was removed after a request from two of the officials he charged, MP Ali Hassan Khalil and MP Ghazi Zaiter, both Hezbollah allies.

Bitar followed in Sawan’s footsteps and issued charges against a number of officials, including Khalil, Zaiter, former public works minister Youssef Fenianos, and former prime minister Hassan Diab, among others. Most have refused to show up for questioning.

The case has already been suspended three times under Bitar due to allegations of bias filed by the charged officials, with the latest suspension coming on Tuesday.

Smoke rises over Beirut's port area as seen from Sin-el-fil, Lebanon September 10, 2020. (credit: CYNTHIA KARAM/REUTERS)Smoke rises over Beirut’s port area as seen from Sin-el-fil, Lebanon September 10, 2020. (credit: CYNTHIA KARAM/REUTERS)

IN ORDER to understand why Hezbollah may be hesitant for an investigation to progress, it’s important to understand the background of the explosion itself.

The ammonium nitrate in question was carried by the Rhosus, whose declared destination was Mozambique. Investigative journalist Feras Hatoum found the ship was owned by a shell company linked to Syrian-Russian businessmen sanctioned by the US for acting on behalf of the Syrian government. At least until shortly before it arrived in Beirut, the ship was owned by an individual linked to a bank accused of dealing with Hezbollah and the Syrian government.

When the ship arrived, it was deemed at risk of sinking, and the chemicals were removed and stored at the port in an unsafe way.

Human Rights Watch found that multiple Lebanese officials were, at minimum, criminally negligent in their handling of the weapons-grade ammonium nitrate. The report found some officials foresaw the deadly risks and accepted them. Officials also repeatedly failed to accurately disclose the dangers posed by the chemicals.

The HRW report listed officials who were aware of the dangers, including President Michel Aoun, Diab and Khalil. The report additionally mentioned that at least four people who had knowledge about the chemicals or the explosion have died in suspicious circumstances.

An FBI probe found the amount of ammonium nitrate that exploded at the port was only a fifth of the amount that arrived on the Rhosus, raising questions of where the rest had gone.

The links of the possible owners of the Rhosus to Hezbollah and the fact the chemicals were weapons grade and had largely been siphoned away from the port by the time of the explosion, among other factors, caused HRW and many others…

Read More: Lebanon gov’t on brink of collapse – what is Hezbollah’s role? -analysis

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