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Lebanese port blast victims demand global support   

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BEIRUT: About a dozen teenagers staged a protest by gathering outside the French embassy in the Lebanese capital holding portraits of their 15-year-old classmate Elias Khoury, who was killed in the port explosion in August 2020, calling for an international inquiry to help push forward a local investigation that senior Lebanese officials have obstructed and stalled for more than a year.

“We were always trying to tell them [the international community] that our track record in such cases is not very encouraging,” Mireille Khoury, Elias’s mother, later told Arab media.

Rights groups and families have praised lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar for not caving into political pressure, and setting precedent for a strong independent judiciary in Lebanon, a country marred by corruption, nepotism, and a strangled justice system.

However, more families who lost their loved ones in the devastating Beirut port blast are now backing calls for the international community to support the maverick judge in an advisory role via a United Nations-mandated fact-finding mission.

Khoury and other families now point to an upcoming UN Human Rights Council session in March as an opportunity to pass a resolution.

Watchdog Human Rights Watch and some of the families have endorsed this for more than a year. They say it will provide Bitar with additional resources and push against ongoing obstructions.

“I support the judge with all my strength, and with every drop of my brother’s blood that was spilled,” said Rima Zahed, whose brother Amin, 42, was also killed in the explosion. “International support would work in parallel with the local investigation.”

The explosion on August 4, 2020, rocked the Lebanese capital after a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, stored unsafely at the port for years, detonated. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. More than 200 people were killed, 6,500 injured, and entire neighborhoods destroyed. No officials have been convicted yet.

A year-and-a-half after the devastating explosion, a handful of senior politicians Bitar charged with criminal negligence refuse to show up for interrogations, while security agencies have declined to implement arrest warrants.

Officials have continuously tried to dismiss Bitar from the probe by filing legal complaints, which have sometimes temporarily suspended the investigation.

In addition, activists, journalists, and lawyers have accused the government of misinformation and a “political campaign” to delegitimize Bitar’s investigation through its politically affiliated media outlets.

Legal analysts have told Arab media the goal is to stall – and eventually kill the investigation.

Following the blast, the United States’ FBI and French judiciary conducted inquiries that were inconclusive.

Families of the Beirut port explosion victims have urged the international community to support the local investigation in other ways as well – but to no avail.

“Unfortunately, they are not helping at all,” Mariana Foudoulian who lost her sister, Gaia, in the explosion told Al Jazeera. “Judge Bitar is working and he’s asking for help.”

Through the Beirut Bar Association, they requested all available satellite imagery over the port on the day of the blast to help determine if it was intentional or not, and whether the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) had checked the ship carrying the explosive ammonium nitrate – the MV Rhosus – before docking at the port in 2013.

So far, only Russia has delivered satellite imagery to the Lebanese government, following a request from President Michel Aoun’s office. Foreign Minister Abdullah Bouhabib received the photos last November, although it is unclear whether the ministry transferred them to Judge Bitar.

In addition, Lebanese filmmaker Firas Hatoum last year in an investigation linked a UK-registered company called Savaro Limited, which owned the explosive substances, to a Syrian businessman close to President Bashar al-Assad.

Two senior British parliamentarians called for an inquiry into the company days after the revelations, though nothing came of it.

Then-Beirut Bar Association head Melhem Khalf, who represented thousands of families affected by the explosion, also sent a letter to the UK government, asking it to investigate the company.

Elias’s mother Mireille Khoury said governments around the world need to start “listening to our appeals and pleas”, adding the investigation so far proves there needs to be greater international support.

“It’s been one-and-a-half years already, what are they waiting for?”

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