Explainer-Two years since Beirut blast, why has no top official been held to account?

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the Beirut silos damaged in the August 2020 port blast, in Beirut, Lebanon May 17, 2022. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon on Thursday marks the second anniversary of the Beirut port explosion which killed at least 215 people, wounded thousands and damaged swathes of the capital.

Despite the devastation wrought by the blast, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, a judicial investigation has brought no senior official to account.

With the probe frozen for months, many Lebanese see this as an example of the impunity enjoyed by a ruling elite that has long avoided accountability for corruption and bad governance, including policies that led to a financial collapse.

Here is a recap of how the blast happened, and the obstacles that have paralysed the investigation.


The explosion just after 6 p.m. on August 4, 2020, resulted from the detonation of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate which ignited as a blaze tore through the warehouse where they were stored.

Originally bound for Mozambique aboard a Russian-leased ship, the chemicals had been at the port since 2013, when they were unloaded during an unscheduled stop to take on extra cargo.

The ship never left the port, becoming tangled in a legal dispute over unpaid port fees and ship defects.

No one ever came forward to claim the shipment.

The amount of ammonium nitrate that blew up was one fifth of the 2,754 tonnes unloaded in 2013, the FBI concluded, adding to suspicions that much of the cargo had gone missing.

The blast was so powerful it was felt 250 km away in Cyprus and sent a mushroom cloud over Beirut.


Senior Lebanese officials, including President Michel Aoun and then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab, were aware of the cargo.

Aoun said shortly after the blast he had told security chiefs to "do what is necessary" after learning of the chemicals. Diab has said his conscience is clear.

Human Rights Watch said in a report last year that high-level security and government officials "foresaw the significant threat to life ... and tacitly accepted the risk of deaths occurring".


The justice minister appointed Judge Fadi Sawan head investigator shortly after the blast. Sawan charged three ex-ministers and Diab with negligence over the blast in December, 2020, but then hit strong political pushback.

A court removed him from the case in February, 2021 after two of the ex-ministers - Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeitar - complained he had overstepped his powers.

Judge Tarek Bitar was appointed to replace Sawan. He sought to interrogate senior figures including Zeitar and Khalil, both of them members of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's Amal Movement and allies of the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

He also sought to question Major-General Abbas Ibrahim, head of the powerful General Security agency.

All have denied wrongdoing.


All of the current and former officials Bitar has sought to question as suspects have resisted, arguing they have immunity or that he lacks authority to prosecute them.

This tussle has played out in the courts, in political life and on the streets.

Suspects swamped courts last year with more than two dozen legal cases seeking Bitar's removal over alleged bias and "grave mistakes", leading to several suspensions of the investigation.

The ex-ministers have said any cases against them should be heard by a special court for presidents and ministers. That court has never held a single official accountable, and it would pass control of the probe to ruling parties in parliament.

The probe has been in complete limbo since early 2022 due to the retirement of judges from a court that must rule on several complaints against Bitar before he can continue.

The finance minister - who is backed by Berri - has held off signing a decree appointing new judges, citing concerns with the sectarian balance of the bench.


Bitar has not pursued any members of the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah group.

But Hezbollah campaigned fiercely against him last year as he sought to question its allies. One senior Hezbollah official sent Bitar a message warning that the group would "uproot" him.

An anti-Bitar protest called by Hezbollah and its allies last October escalated into deadly violence.

Hezbollah has accused the United States, which lists the group as a terrorist organisation, of meddling in the probe.

The U.S. ambassador has denied this.

Hezbollah dismissed accusations made at the time of the blast that it had stored arms at the port and says it had nothing to do with the blast. Its adversaries have long accused the group of controlling the port - something it also denies.

(Writing by Timour Azhari and Tom Perry, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Article type: free
User access status:
Subscribe now to our Premium Plan for an ad-free and unlimited reading experience!

Next In World

Front-runner Lula close to outright win in Brazil election, poll shows
Kabul blast a setback for Afghan women seeking education against the odds
Protesters rally across Iran in third week of unrest over Amini's death
Somaliland lawmakers vote to extend president's term by two years
Deep underground, Mexican coal miners remember those who never came back
Tear gas fired, scores wounded in Baghdad protest marking 2019 unrest
Gunfire heard in Burkina Faso capital the day after coup: Reuters reporter
Superyacht linked to sanctioned Russian on sale for 29.5 million euros
Ukrainian soldiers reach outskirts of long-time Russian bastion of Lyman - video
U.N. watchdog asks Russian authorities about Ukrainian nuclear plant head

Others Also Read