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Lebanese Demand Justice A Year After The Deadly Beirut Port Explosion


A new Human Rights Watch report states what many in Lebanon already believe - that there's little chance the investigation of the blast at the Beirut port last year will hold any ranking officials accountable. That's despite evidence they failed to act on warnings about dangerous chemicals at the port. The blast killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and displaced thousands more. Today makes a year since the explosion, and people in Lebanon are holding marches and vigils and also calling for justice. NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us from there right now. Ruth, can you just tell us a little bit about how much the city still bears the scars from this blast?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, I'm standing on a balcony overlooking Beirut with a view right down to the sea, and, you know, across these neighborhoods, there are still some high-rise buildings that are uninhabitable, with windows missing and walls cracked. Parts of downtown Beirut look frozen in time. Like, these shopfronts are still smashed up. Many people are rebuilding, but the truth is, others just can't afford to.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, right after the blast, it came out that hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had exploded. What have we learned since about the causes of the blast?

SHERLOCK: Well, there's still lots we don't know, like, for example, exactly how or why this wound up in hangar 12 at Beirut port. But what we do know is that the bags of this really volatile substance - you mentioned the ammonium nitrate - were kept in a warehouse alongside miles of fuses, tons of fireworks and other chemicals like hydrochloric acid; so basically, the makings of a giant bomb. And we now know that staff at the port warned multiple times about how dangerous this situation was. And these reports made their way to the desks of Lebanon's top officials, including its president and its prime minister at the time, and these politicians failed to take action.

MARTÍNEZ: I can't imagine that the Lebanese people are thrilled about this. So what are they saying about these findings?

SHERLOCK: Well, understandably, there's outrage but not much surprise. You know, this country is ruled by a small group of sectarian leaders. Some of them have been around since the civil war. They were warlords there. And they're already accused of corruption and squandering public money. So this explosion, though, does reveal just how big the disconnect is between the country's leaders and their population. For example, families of the victims of the blast say political leaders have failed to even visit or send condolences. Here's the response of Tracy Awad Naggear, who lost her 3-year-old daughter in the blast. This is what she said when I asked her about it.

TRACY AWAD NAGGEAR: Honestly, we haven't received anything from the government - no communication at all. No direct messages. No letters. No representatives talking to us. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Nobody talked to us.

SHERLOCK: She answered my question in a news conference run by Human Rights Watch. Their researcher says that in her own conversations with politicians, those politicians focused almost always on deflecting blame rather than showing concern for Lebanese who lost their lives or homes.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned Human Rights Watch. Tell us about that report they came out with. What are the findings?

SHERLOCK: Well, their findings match the work of Lebanese investigative journalists and others in showing just how many senior officials were warned of the dangerous situation at the port. According to Lebanese law, officials could even be charged with homicide for their neglect. But not one senior official has been prosecuted this whole year. Instead, at one point, the investigative judge was removed from his position because he was trying to lift immunity protections on top officials. Now there's a new judge, but Parliament is still refusing to remove those immunity laws. Human Rights Watch is saying that the investigation is, quote, "incapable of credibly delivering justice." And they're calling on the United Nations Human Rights Council to launch its own investigation into what happened.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut. Ruth, thanks.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "KERALA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.