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Victims' Families In Lebanon Aim To Keep Explosion Probe Going


The judge who was leading the investigation into a devastating explosion in Beirut last year has been dismissed. Rights groups say Lebanese politicians are trying to avoid any blame. Hundreds of people died. NPR's Ruth Sherlock talked to families who are trying to keep that investigation alive.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: At dusk one recent evening, families of different religions gather at the entrance to Beirut's destroyed port, where dozens of soldiers armed with M16 rifles watch from the gate.


SHERLOCK: The families play recordings of church bells, along with a Muslim call to prayer in a peaceful vigil.

Now they're walking towards the gate where the soldiers are, slowly, all holding candles, all holding portraits of the ones that they lost in the explosions.

Children hold pictures of fathers who were among the more than 200 people killed by the blast that destroyed or damaged thousands of buildings across the capital city.

HIAM AL BEKAYI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Hiam Al Bekayi mourns her only son, Ahmad Ibrahim Kadaan. She says she's lost her helper, her pride, her everything. These families want to get to the bottom of why a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate was neglected for years, despite warnings to officials as high as the president and the prime minister's office that it could cause a devastating explosion.

But now, six months after the blast, justice seems further from reach than ever. Last week, the country's highest court dismissed the investigating judge, Fadi Sawan. Among the reasons, they said he could be biased because his home, like hundreds of thousands of others, was damaged in the explosion.

IBRAHIM HOTEIT: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Ibrahim Hoteit, a spokesman for a committee that represents the relatives of some of the victims, tells me that they believe Sawan's sacking was politically motivated.

HOTEIT: (Through interpreter) He started investigating too close to the big politicians in the country, so they tried to throw him aside. He tried to summon the director general of state security and charged ministers, so they took him out of the investigation.

SHERLOCK: Aya Majzoub, the Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch, agrees. She tells me Sawan's dismissal shows how brazen Lebanon's long-corrupt political class has become.

AYA MAJZOUB: They've effectively shielded themselves from any kind of rule of law or accountability.

SHERLOCK: Political leaders that have paralyzed the government amid an economic crisis with their infighting seem to have closed ranks on the blast. Majzoub says when Judge Sawan summoned the caretaker prime minister for questioning, even his most bitter rivals joined in his defense, asserting an unclear law that sometimes gives politicians immunity.

MAJZOUB: This whole, you know, him versus me is just a facade that they feed to people. But really, when the system is in jeopardy, they all banded together to protect it because if one of them falls, all of them fall.

SHERLOCK: Neither the Justice Ministry nor the prime minister's office replied to NPR's request for comment. A new investigative judge, Tarek Bitar, has been appointed. Majzoub is not optimistic about his chances for success. She thinks the international community should take over the investigation but says there are few signs that this will happen. So relatives of the victims, like Rima Zahed, who lost her brother in the explosion, focus on the investigation they have, however flawed.

RIMA ZAHED: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She says political leaders may try to hide the truth of what happened, but she and the others are going to keep trying to bring those responsible to justice.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLDTWIG FEAT. LIME KAIN'S "DUNES") 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.