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3 years after Beirut port blast, an investigation has gone nowhere

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today marks three years since an explosion at a port in Beirut killed more than 220 people and devastated swaths of the capital city. But no senior officials in Lebanon have been prosecuted over the blast, even though they had been warned it could happen. Now victims are searching for other routes to justice. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has this story, with help from journalist Jawad Rizkallah in Beirut. And we want to note that this story contains some disturbing details.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in recorded history.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

SHERLOCK: Fire, and then a giant shockwave from Beirut port ripped through the capital city, damaging tens of thousands of homes and wrecking lives.

TANYA DAOU-ALAM: That day, I lost my husband of 20 years.

SHERLOCK: Tanya Daou-Alam says, in the moments after the explosion, herself still bleeding from broken glass, she called out for her husband, Freddy.

DAOU-ALAM: I went to him. He was lying on his stomach. I tried to turn him, and I realized that his throat was cut open from the glass. And he had pierced lungs. So I tried to stop the blood, but I learned later that he was killed on the spot.

SHERLOCK: Daou-Alam is a lawyer, and she's come to a meeting at Lebanon's lawyers syndicate for an update on the investigation into the blast on this third anniversary. But there is little new to say. There has long been evidence that senior leaders, including the then-president and prime minister, failed to act on warnings about the improperly stored ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion. But three years on, no senior official has been prosecuted for this.

DAOU-ALAM: The investigation here has been blocked for a long time because of political interference.

SHERLOCK: When Lebanon's lead investigator charged top officials in connection with the explosion, many of those officials tried to dismiss the investigator, effectively freezing the inquiry. This week, some 300 organizations and individuals signed a joint letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council asking for an international fact-finding mission to come and investigate the blast.

LAMA FAKIH: It's something that the international community could do, even without the cooperation of the Lebanese government, to try to advance accountability.

SHERLOCK: Lama Fakih from Human Rights Watch in Beirut says the fact-finding mission could push for answers.

FAKIH: This would result in an official report that would lay out responsibility for the explosion, and it could help to put more pressure on officials in Lebanon to allow the domestic process to move forward. And it could also be used in judicial proceedings in other countries.

SHERLOCK: Some families of the victims have found ways to file lawsuits outside of Lebanon. For example, Lebanese claimants recently won a court case in the U.K. against the chemical trading firm suspected of having owned the ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion near the blast site. Now, bars and restaurants have been rebuilt and are once again full, but this doesn't mean that people have moved on. Tracy Siam (ph) says she can't forget the day of the blast.

TRACY SIAM: So, for me, there is no anniversary. It's a continuation of the same day.

SHERLOCK: And few Lebanese believe they will see justice in their own country unless outside pressure is brought to bear on Lebanon's leaders. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.
Jawad Rizkallah