Beirut explosion: Officials knew risks of storing explosive materials but failed to protect public, says rights group

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A year on from the massive explosion which hit Beirut, an international human rights group has said senior Lebanese officials failed to protect the public from the risks posed by highly explosive material stored at the capital's port.

In a report on the explosion, Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed those same officials were trying to thwart an investigation into the incident.

It comes as the country prepares to mark the one year anniversary of the blast on Wednesday.

At least 214 people were killed and more than 6,000 others were injured in the explosion at Beirut's port.

The blast was preceded by a huge fire at a warehouse after hundreds of tonnes of improperly stored ammonium nitrate, a compound used as fertiliser but which has been used to make bombs, detonated.

Protesters are expected to gather in front of the port on Wednesday to hold a moment of silence before heading to the city centre.

Lebanon's most senior Christian cleric, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al Rai, is also due to hold a mass with the families of victims at the port.

An investigation into the explosion is yet to reveal who ordered the shipment of chemicals and why officials ignored repeated internal warnings of the dangers they posed.

The chemicals arrived in the country on a ship called the Rhosus in 2013, after it made a stop while on its way from Georgia to Mozambique, in Beirut to try to earn extra money by taking on several pieces of heavy machinery.

However, the additional cargo proved too heavy for the ship and the crew refused to take it on.

It was then impounded by Lebanese authorities for failing to pay port fees, and never left the port again.

The HRW's 650-page report details documents and exchanges between Lebanese officials about the ammonium nitrates, which had been stored at the port since then.

It concluded that "the actions and omissions of Lebanese authorities created an unreasonable risk of life", adding that under international human rights law, a state's failure to act to prevent foreseeable risks to life is a violation of the right to life.

In addition, HRW said evidence strongly suggested some government officials foresaw the possible devastation from the nitrates' presence and tacitly accepted the risk.

"Under domestic law, this could amount to the crime of homicide with probable intent, and/or unintentional homicide," it added.

The report names senior leaders, including President Michel Aoun, prime minister at the time Hassan Diab, and several ministers among others who were informed of risks posed by the nitrates but failed to take any action.

Lebanese officials have acknowledged they knew about the chemicals and either claim they pursued the matter after learning about it, or it was not within their jurisdiction to do so.

HRW said a lack of judicial independence, constitution-imposed immunity for high-level officials, and a range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation rendered it "incapable of credibly delivering justice".

Survivors of the blast and families of the victims have called for an international investigation to take place due to their lack faith in the Lebanese judicial system.

HRW says the case for an "international investigation has only strengthened".

Last month, Lebanon's lead investigating judge in the case, Tarek Bitar, announced he intends to pursue senior politicians and former and current security chiefs in the case, and requested permission for their prosecution.

However, those named in the probe have failed to appear at the prosecutor's office, citing either immunity as members of parliament or needing special permission from the prime minister or the interior minister to appear.

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