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Three years after massive Beirut port blast, probe still blocked by intrigue

BEIRUT (AP) — Three years after Beirut’s massive port blast, 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. The parents 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 accused 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 in a warehouse at the port.

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

Political graffiti is visible in front of the scene of the August 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 9, 2020. (AP/Hussein Malla)

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 died in the subsequent period.

Among those listed by Maan Initiative is Qusai, the Syrian infant.

Qusai 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.

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.”

This undated handout photo provided by the Ramadan family shows five-month-old Qusai Ramadan, who was killed in the deadly 2020 Beirut port explosion. (Ramadan family via AP)

Lebanon is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees, who make up 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.

A protester holds a placard outside a court building during a demonstration of solidarity with Judge Tarek Bitar who is investigating the August 2020 seaport blast, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 29, 2021. (AP/Hussein Malla)

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 has 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 Amnesty International rights group.

Makhoul Mohammed, 40, a Syrian citizen, was lightly injured in the blast in his Beirut apartment while his daughter Sama, who was six 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.