It took two and a half months of following the investigation into the Beirut port massacre for the Beirut Bar Association to determine that the concerns the Legal Agenda expressed in its article “Twelve Bad Signs at the Outset of the Beirut Massacre Investigation” were well placed. At the time of the article’s publication (21 August 2020), few realized that referring the case to the Judicial Council was a strategic error that would restrict the investigation to a politically appointed investigator whose decisions are not subject to any review. Most importantly, few realized that it would draw us into a trial that does not meet the condition of fairness. Few pondered the blatant signs that we pointed out – foremost among them the cassation public prosecutor’s conflict of interests – and that have gradually become conclusive evidence that the investigation has gone off course. The Bar Association, which unfortunately pushed and provided cover for the referral, wished to see for itself the earnestness of the investigation. Now, with a statement issued on November 7 and signed by its president Melhem Khalaf, the Bar Association has come out to tell Lebanese citizens frankly that the case faces “large challenges” and “many obstacles”. While it previously remained silent, it has now pledged loudly and clearly that it will not continue to do so and will not lose hope or give in until justice is delivered. In a second statement issued exactly one week after the first (November 14), it further elaborated its misgivings about the course of the investigation.
The Bar Association’s statements reveal two things:
Hence, the Bar Association seemed to be sounding the alarm that many suspects are being immunized and spared from any charges or even investigation, along with many theories.
The day after the first statement, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi echoed these concerns, albeit more diplomatically, in his weekly sermon. First, he stated that he is waiting for an investigation that encompasses the successive ministers concerned. He then put the Judicial Council investigator to the test: “President Fadi Sawan: all eyes – especially those of the families of the casualties, the people affected, and the disabled and those of the Church and society – are on you after more than three months of concerning silence. It is time for the impartial and courageous judiciary. It either restores trust in itself or loses it entirely. … One of our Lebanese judges said, ‘A judge loses half his strength when he fears the powerful, and he loses the other half when he wrongs the weak’”. Al-Rahi ended the sermon by thanking the Bar Association for its efforts to represent the victims, thus indicating that he shares the concerns that it raised in this regard.
On November 5, groups that arose from the October 17 uprising called for a protest near Sassine Square, which ended in front of the Judicial Council investigator’s home to induce him to charge top officials or recuse himself. The families of the deceased and the United for Lebanon alliance also held several protests in front of the courthouse the following week.
At the same time as the Bar Association’s first statement, the Supreme Judicial Council’s Media Bureau also issued its second statement about the progress of the investigation (the first having been issued on September 24). Despite the statement’s reassuring tone, the Judicial Council investigator appeared to have finished interviewing defendants, and witnesses and domestic investigations, and was merely awaiting the responses to his letters of request to American, French, and British parties (though he also declared his intention to interview the victims for whom the Bar Association recently filed claims). The investigator explained that the British Embassy had informed him that Scotland Yard needs several weeks to reply. Hence, the statement confirmed the fear that the domestic investigations and allegations are finished. Exacerbating this concern, the judicial investigator made no reference whatsoever to the possibility of questioning ministers or to any of the memoranda that the Bar Association said it submitted.
These developments warrant several observations:
The Investigation’s Deficiency Is Not a Surprise but the Result of a Set of Well-Known Factors
What is happening is no surprise. Rather, it is an outcome that any rational, not overly optimistic analysis of the existing situation, particularly the issues in the investigation and trial conditions, could have anticipated. The more deficient the fair trial standards in the investigation’s procedures (i.e. the problems that we highlighted in the aforementioned article), the greater the likelihood that it fails to achieve truth and justice. Just as whoever knew about the storage of nitrate in the port and the danger it posed could have anticipated the explosion, whoever knew about the lack of fair trial conditions in the Judicial Council’s investigation could have anticipated its now well-established shortcomings. Similarly, just as the silence about the nitrate and the lack of action to remove it constitutes a trivialization of threats to people’s lives and property, silence about the violation of fair trial guarantees constitutes a trivialization of threats to justice and truth.
While we view the Beirut Bar Association’s pledge to be frank with the public and not be silent about the course of the investigation positively, we would also like to draw its attention to the fact that the negatives it perceives in the investigator’s work are not the only issue that must be confronted. Rather, before all else, we must address the factors that produced these negatives in order to rectify them, avert more like them, and promote justice and prevent its trivialization. To do otherwise is tantamount to forsaking our chances of correcting the course of the investigation before it is too late.
Appealing to the Judicial Council Investigator’s Conscience is Not Enough
Given the above, apostrophizing the judge, confronting him with his responsibilities, and preaching to him (as in al-Rahi’s sermon) or calling upon him to be courageous and listen to his conscience (as in the Bar Association’s November 14 statement) is a half measure tackling one negative effect of the system’s deficiency. In reality, contenting ourselves with this half measure without any effort to address the roots of the problem is more akin to an attempt to deflect blame and exculpate ourselves from the investigation’s outcome and consequences than an attempt to correct its course.
Hence, we again emphasize the need for the legal and social public discourse to go beyond awareness-raising and appeals to a sense of responsibility, and instead work to ensure the rights of the victims and society in a trial that meets the highest standards of fairness. We must work to achieve the following four complementary goals:
While some may argue that these issues stem from difficulties that would be hard to overcome in the foreseeable future, whereas uncovering the truth demands prompt steps that can be accomplished immediately, this reasoning has several flaws:
The Victims and Their Supporters Must Be Rallied Together in Their Battle
Finally, without downplaying the significance of the Beirut Bar Association, rights organizations, and other bodies now supporting the demands for truth and justice, we must acknowledge that achieving the aforementioned imperatives today requires pooling efforts to support justice and, before anything else, what we labeled in the wake of the explosion as “constructing the victim identity” and “institutionalizing the pain”, which would provide the advantages described below:
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.