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Lebanon to mark port blast anniversary amid Cabinet deadlock, economic turmoil - The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Lebanon marks Wednesday the first anniversary of the deadly Beirut Port explosion amid a political stalemate that for a year has left the country without a fully functioning government to deal with a series of crises, including an economic depression that has pushed more than half of the nation’s population below the poverty line.

The port blast anniversary also comes amid calls by the families of the victims and officials from the across the political spectrum for achieving justice in the catastrophe that has jolted the crises-ridden country and for bringing into account those responsible for the large shipment of ammonium nitrate that caused the blast.

Lebanon has declared a national day of mourning on Aug. 4 commemorating the first anniversary of the massive explosion that pulverized Beirut Port, killed 210 people, wounded thousands, devastated entire neighborhoods in the capital and caused billions of dollars in material damage.

Ministries, public administrations, public institutions and municipalities and banks will be closed Wednesday, while flags will fly at half-mast over these administrations and municipalities.

Families of the victims have staged protests and sit-ins in past months to complain about the lack of progress into the investigation in the blast caused by hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate unsafely stored for years at a warehouse at the port.

On Monday, they threatened of further escalatory measures if Parliament did not act to lift immunity from MPs and former ministers summoned by for interrogation by lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar. Protests and other events have been called for the anniversary to demand justice and commemorate its victims.

Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati said Monday he had hoped to form a new government before Aug. 4 as a gift to the Lebanese but differences with President Michel Aoun over the allocation of four key ministries -- Interior, Finance, Defense and Foreign Affairs -- meant that that target would not be met.

Lebanon has been left without a fully empowered government since caretaker Prime Minster Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned Aug. 10 last year in the aftermath of the port blast.

While calling for justice into the port blast, victims’ families and the broader public have blamed negligence, incompetence and corruption on the part of the ruling class for the disaster. It emerged after the blast that officials had known about the explosive substance being stored unsafely at the port for years. But almost a year later an investigation has yet to hold anyone to account, and the families of the victims say political interference has derailed the process.

Aoun is scheduled to address the Lebanese on the occasion at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called for justice in the port disaster. “Again, from my political and legislative position, I will not accept less than justice and punishment against the perpetrators, no matter in what position they are and to which group they belong,” Berri said in a statement.

In a statement on the occasion, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri warned against using the port disaster to further political ends. He called for an international probe into the port blast, while stressing that there can be no justice without accountability and revealing the truth behind the blast.

“The volcano that hit Beirut, its residents and neighborhoods is not a platform for political outbiddings and exploitation of the sorrow of the grieving citizens and using it as conduit to register positions and plunge the judicial path into populist directions to hide the truth,” Hariri said.

“This [Aug. 4] is a day to liberate justice from political duels and media trials. It is not a day to launch electoral campaigns and bribe the Lebanese public opinion with justice upon request,” he added.

“Justice has two bases: An international investigation committee that will put its hands on the [port blast] file and the crime scene, or the suspension of restrictions stipulated by the Constitution and laws and the special courts resulting from them that share prerogatives and rulings in the same crime,” Hariri said.

Declaring that Aug. 4 is a “day of solidarity” with Beirut and its residents, Hariri said: “The port crime is the mother of crimes in Lebanon’s history... There will be no justice without accountability and no accountability without truth and no truth without achieving a transparent international investigation or the suspension of some constitutional articles to lift all immunities from the top to bottom. Yes to justice of complete truth.”

Hariri last week called for the temporary suspension of immunity on all officials, including the president, in the probe into the port blast. He said that his Future parliamentary bloc had signed a petition to suspend all laws granting senior officials immunity while Lebanese judiciary authorities are investigating the explosion. A Future bloc delegation has visited various leaders seeking he signatures of other blocs and lawmakers to sign the document "so that we can know the truth."

Diab, one of senior officials summoned by Bitar for questioning on the port blast, stressed that there will be no real justice in Lebanon before justice is achieved in this case.

“The blast has left deep scars in the spirits and conscience of the country,” Diab said in a statement. “A year has passed, but the marks are still glaring; the pain is still heart-rending, and the burning hearts of the families of the martyrs and the wounded have not cooled down.”

He said the port blast has revealed the faults of the country. “The corruption that eats Lebanon away has been partly exposed, and the features of the deep state, the state of corruption, have emerged, showing that Hangar 12 summarizes the Lebanese reality, which is based on converging elements of deeply entrenched corruption that the country surrendered to,” Diab said.

“There will be no real justice in Lebanon until justice is rendered in the Beirut port blast. The Lebanese cannot feel safe unless the full facts of this catastrophe, whose humanitarian, psychosocial, and devastating effects have left their marks on the capital and its surroundings, are revealed,” he added.

Diab said that the full facts of the disaster cannot be revealed if the following fundamental questions remain unanswered: Who came up with these materials and why? How come and why were they left at the port for 7 years? How did the explosion occur?

“Achieving justice begins with revealing the truth, holding those responsible for that disaster accountable, protecting the blood of the martyrs and healing the wounds of the injured and those affected by the tragedy,” Diab said. “Lebanon is going through a very dangerous stage that threatens its fate and the future of its children; thus, everyone must realize that true justice is the cornerstone that prevents Lebanon from falling.”

In a 126-page report released Tuesday, Human Rights Watch accused Lebanese authorities of criminal negligence for failing to secure a shipment of hazardous chemicals that caused last year's monster port blast, despite repeated warnings.

The watchdog recommended an independent UN investigative mission conduct its own inquiry, and advocated for broad international sanctions against top officials.

The International Support Group for Lebanon Tuesday urged Lebanese authorities to swiftly complete the investigation into the port explosion, so that the truth may be known and justice rendered.

In a statement after its meeting, the group said it observed with deep concern the accelerating economic deterioration that has severely affected all segments of Lebanese society, its institutions and services.

“The ISG called upon Lebanese authorities, as a matter of national responsibility, to urgently take every possible step to improve the living conditions of the people of Lebanon. Members welcomed the upcoming conference co-chaired by France and the United Nations to address the humanitarian needs of Lebanon’s most vulnerable people,” the statement said.

After Mikati’s designation last week, the group’s members called on Lebanese leaders to support without delay the formation of an “empowered new government that implements meaningful reforms.” The group recalled the importance of holding elections on time in order to safeguard a democratic Lebanon and to restore the trust and hope of its people.

The ISG has brought together the United Nations and the governments of China, France, Germany, Italy, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, together with the European Union and the Arab League.?

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