3 years after Beirut port blast, political intrigue foils prosecutions and even the death toll is disputed

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Maria Fares reacts as she holds an image of her sister Sahar Fares, 27, one of the victims of the August 2020 Beirut port blast, during a march as Lebanon marks the three-year anniversary of the explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 4, 2023. Photo by Emilie Madi/REUTERS

BEIRUT (AP) — Three years after Beirut’s massive port explosion, attempts to prosecute those responsible are mired in political intrigue, the final death toll remains disputed and many Lebanese have less faith than ever in their disintegrating state institutions.

As the country marks the anniversary Friday, relatives of some of those killed are still struggling to get their loved ones recognized as blast victims, reflecting the ongoing chaos since the Aug. 4, 2020 explosion. The blast killed at least 218 people, according to an Associated Press count, wounded more than 6,000, devastated large swaths of Beirut and caused billions of dollars in damages.

Among those not recognized as a blast victim is a five-month-old boy, Qusai Ramadan, a child of Syrian refugees. His parents say he was killed when the explosion toppled the ceiling and a cupboard in his hospital room, crushing him. They have been unable to get the infant added to the official death list, a move that could have made them eligible for future compensation.

They accuse the authorities of discriminating against victims who are not Lebanese.

Meanwhile, the blast anniversary brought renewed calls for an international investigation of those responsible, including top officials who allowed hundreds of tons of highly flammable ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, to be improperly stored for years at a warehouse in the port.

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Lebanese and international organizations, survivors and families of victims sent an appeal to the U.N. Rights Council, saying that on the third anniversary of the explosion, “we are no closer to justice and accountability for the catastrophe.”

Hundreds of people marched in the Lebanese capital on Friday to mark the anniversary, with some family members of the victims calling on the international community to help in the investigation.

Carrying roses and photos of their loved ones, the families led the march and gathered outside Beirut’s port. Victims’ names were read and a moment of silence was held at 6:07 p.m. — the time when the blast occurred.

The mother of one of the victims called for an international and impartial investigation “within the U.N. framework.”

“Three years have passed and you have been turning a deaf ear to this request and this hurts a lot,” said Mireille Bazergy Khoury, the mother of Elias Khoury who was killed by the blast. “This crime is not a Lebanese issue. Victims are all of all nationalities. Please taken action.”

Maan, a Lebanese group advocating for victims and survivors, put the death toll at 236, significantly higher than the government’s count of 191. The authorities stopped counting the dead a month after the blast, even as some of the severely wounded later died.

Among those listed by the Maan initiative is Qusai, the Syrian infant. He had been undergoing treatment for a severe liver condition and was transferred to a government hospital near the port about a week before the explosion. Hospital staff said the infant needed a liver transplant and was in critical condition.

On the day of the blast, Qusai’s aunt, Noura Mohammed, was sitting at his bedside while his mother rested at home. The aunt said the staff ordered everyone to evacuate immediately after the explosion, and that she found the infant dead, crushed by fallen debris, when she returned.

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Hospital officials said Qusai died an hour after the explosion, with the death certificate listing cardio respiratory arrest as the cause. The family buried him a day later.

“We asked them (the authorities) to register my son among the victims of the blast,” his mother, Sarah Jassem Mohammed, said in a recent interview in a small tent in an orchard in the northern Lebanese village of Markabta, where she lives with her husband, two sons and one daughter. “They refused.”

Lebanon is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees, who make about 20 percent of the country’s population. A Lebanese group, the Anti-Racism Movement, said that among those killed in the blast were at least 76 non-Lebanese citizens, including 52 Syrians.

Meanwhile, many in Lebanon have been losing faith in the domestic investigation and some have started filing cases abroad against companies suspected of bringing in the ammonium nitrate.

The chemicals had been shipped to Lebanon in 2013. Senior political and security officials knew of their presence and potential danger but did nothing.

Lebanese and non-Lebanese victims alike have seen justice delayed, with the investigation stalled since December 2021. Lebanon’s powerful and corrupt political class has repeatedly intervened in the work of the judiciary.

In January, Lebanon’s top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat ordered the release of all suspects detained in the investigation.

“The political class have used every tool at their disposal — both legal and extra legal — to undermine, obstruct, and block the domestic investigation into the blast,” said Aya Majzoub, deputy chief for the Mideast and North Africa at the rights group Amnesty International.

Makhoul Mohammed, 40, a Syrian citizen, was lightly injured in the blast in his Beirut apartment while his daughter Sama, who was 6 at the time, lost her left eye.

Mohammed, who settled in Canada last year, said he plans to sue those responsible for the explosion in a Canadian court.

“The (domestic) investigation will not lead to results as long as this political class is running the country,” he said.

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