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People in Beirut are still looking for justice after the 2020 port explosion

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's been more than two years since an explosion at Beirut's port killed more than 200 people, wounded scores more and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Two years and not one person among Lebanon's ruling class has been held accountable for the negligence that led to that blast. And this week, a decision by the country's chief public prosecutor sparked even more rage, prompting demonstrators to block his office and demand justice.

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UNIDENTIFIED DEMONSTRATORS: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: The prosecutor levied charges not against those responsible but against the judge investigating the port blast. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is in Beirut. And she joins us now. Good morning, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: OK, Ruth, before we get into what's happening this week, let's go back to what happened in August 2020 that killed so many people. I mean, this appeared to be a case of extreme negligence on the part of the country's leaders, right?

SHERLOCK: Absolutely. You know, when the warehouse exploded, it was one of the largest ever non-nuclear explosions. Two hundred and eighteen people were killed. Over 300,000 remain homeless. And the capital city was devastated. And this explosion happened when a fire at the port ignited thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate. That's a very volatile chemical. But experts say, at the port, it was carelessly stored next to literally tons of fireworks, kerosene and even detonator fuses, basically the elements of a giant bomb.

FADEL: I mean - and the ruling class knew about this, right?

SHERLOCK: Right. It quickly emerged that Lebanon's top officials, including the president and the prime minister at the time, had actually been told about the danger sitting there. But nobody took action. So experts say this could be a crime under Lebanese law, possibly even homicide.

FADEL: So what's going on this week? Why is the judge getting charged after he resumed the inquiry into the blast?

SHERLOCK: Well, the chief prosecutor that issued the charges is claiming that the judge, Tarek Bitar, doesn't have the legal right to resume his investigation, which had been stalled for over a year. He's ordered law enforcement agencies not to execute Bitar's orders. And he's also begun releasing the only people that were ever detained in connection with the blast. This, though, is in response to Bitar charging him, the chief prosecutor, as well as the current heads of Lebanese security agencies and the former prime minister.

I want to remind you, though, that the first investigative judge that was appointed tried to charge the former prime minister and others with criminal negligence. But they claimed they had immunity and actually managed to get that judge fired. This judge, Bitar, has faced similar opposition. So now he's restarted his inquiry. But it's a standoff, with Judge Bitar and the families of the victims on one side and the prosecutor, with the support of many of the country's leaders, on the other.

FADEL: And this is going on as Lebanon is dealing with an intense economic crisis, people's money taken by the banks, systemic and endemic corruption among the entrenched ruling elite. Is this a case of that ruling elite protecting itself?

SHERLOCK: That is what it looks like and what most Lebanese people suspect. Lebanese politics was traditionally mired by sectarian rivalries. But as it's become apparent that all of the leaders of the different sects played a role in the corruption and mismanagement that caused the economic crisis here, the establishment seems to be closing ranks. And that seems apparent in the port investigation, too. You know, analysts and rights groups say what's happening here is Lebanon's leaders are just running roughshod over the law and blocking the investigation, all to shield themselves from accountability.

FADEL: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut. Thank you, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.