CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat is married to Public Works Minister Ghazi Zaieter’s sister. In fact, Oueidat’s sister is married to Zaieter, as is now reflected below.
Beirut, Lebanon – Fadi Sawan was not the first choice to lead investigations into Lebanon’s single-most destructive explosion. Nor was he the second.
The 60-year-old military investigative judge was, in fact, the third name Caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najem proposed to a council of top judges to be approved for the powerful role of judicial investigator.
They finally accepted, thus empowering Sawan to shape the probe into the enormous explosion at Beirut’s port that killed at least 180 people, left about 30 missing and injured more than 6,000 on August 4. The case he puts together will eventually be transferred to the Judicial Council, the highest court in the country, to which Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s cabinet referred the blast investigation just hours before resigning last week.
The council’s decisions are not subject to appeal – and neither is the investigation that Sawan will put together. This makes his work all the more crucial.
But the process that led to Sawan’s selection and his management of a number of high-profile cases raise questions about whether he is the right man for the job.
The case he is investigating has implicated dozens of security, administrative and political officials who were aware of the presence of some 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port, which has been there for more than six years, but did nothing to remove it.
Many of these officials are either directly or indirectly affiliated with major political parties that hold the reigns of power in Lebanon.
Sawan will have to show great independence and perseverance, especially given chronic political interference in Lebanon’s judiciary – a practice so pervasive state media made it a point to note Sawan “is known to visit neither politicians, nor even his fellow judges … he does not participate in social or political events and is known to not receive instructions”.
Third time’s a charm
The process that led to Sawan’s selection is not encouraging.
Najem had first proposed Samer Younes, a judge who “is not only independent, but proved he is one of the very few judges ready to get into a battle for justice”, said Nizar Saghieh, a leading Lebanese legal expert and founder of NGO the Legal Agenda.
But the Higher Judicial Council (HJC) – a 10 judge panel appointed by the country’s ruling class – rejected Younes, without offering any explanation. Local media was awash with rumours that it was due to his political leanings. Younes responded in a statement listing prominent cases he had taken on for more than 10 years, some involving powerful politicians, in which, he says, “I stood, alone.”
He mentions the 2010 “White House Restaurant” case, where bodyguards of Anton Sehnaoui, the CEO of SGBL Bank and the brother of a soon-to-be-minister, exchanged fire with a businessman’s bodyguards.
Then-Investigative Judge Ghassan Oueidat declined to interrogate Sehnaoui, but Younes appealed his decision and insisted on Sehnaoui’s interrogation, embarking on a long judicial confrontation.
Ten years later, Oueidat is Lebanon’s top prosecutor and the deputy head of the HJC – the council that rejected Younes’s candidacy to lead investigations into the blast.
Najem then proposed Tarek Bitar, a judge who Saghieh says was similarly qualified, but was “made to bow out early”. Bitar released a short statement saying he had declined to take on the role, without providing reasons. Again, local media reports speculated political pressure was behind his refusal to take on the prominent position.
Finally, Najem proposed Sawan. The HJC accepted.
The HJC issued a statement saying speculation over the process behind Sawan’s appointment “does not correspond to reality”, but offered no alternative explanation, saying its deliberations were secret.
“Keeping public opinion and the media abreast of the course of the Beirut Port explosion issue is natural, but the council calls on everyone not to question the investigations that have taken place and are taking place, and to give the judiciary full confidence,” the statement said.
Najem did not respond to several requests for comment on the process that led to Sawan’s selection. Sawan could not be reached for comment.
“There’s no appeal in this case, so political authorities didn’t want to have their hands tied with someone independent who could implement a courageous decision,” Saghieh said. “That could explain this process with no transparency that eliminated two brave judges, and instead selected a man known to accept work within the lines.”
Those lines are especially important here: Oueidat, Lebanon’s top prosecutor, led investigations into the blast until the case was transferred to Sawan, and will continue to play a central role.
But there are concerns over the involvement of Oueidat himself in the case: He was informed of the presence of the highly explosive material months before disaster struck, and he allegedly ordered maintenance to the port hangar where the explosive material was stored. That maintenance, which included welding, is suspected of having lit the fire that eventually caused the blast.
Oueidat’s sister is also married to Public Works Minister Ghazi Zaeiter, who was in office from February 2014 till December 2016 and was nominally in charge of overseeing the port.
Sawan, so far, has shown no initiative to work beyond the case transferred to him by Oueidat – which includes 19 detainees and charges against 25 people, none of whom is a minister or political official.
Instead, Sawan has slowly worked his way through the names already handed over to him, interrogating them one by one and issuing orders to keep them detained.
The vast majority of Sawan’s work in his capacity as military investigative judge has been related to terrorism charges levelled against Syrians and Lebanese.
State media said he had issued “hundreds of indictments” against alleged members of the ISIL (ISIS) group, the al-Nusra Front and other armed groups throughout his career. Official reports show that many of these charges were issued as summary judgements against a dozen, or sometimes more than two-dozen people at a time.
A lawyer with detailed, direct knowledge of Sawan’s decisions at the court over many years said the judge dealt with people in a “brash, almost vicious manner if they are weak, poor or opposed to” the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The lawyer declined to be named because they continue to practice in a field that Sawan has influence over.
Sawan has a “clear political stance in his decisions. He would always write ‘the terrorist Free Syrian Army (FSA)’ in his decisions and prosecute people opposed to the regime even if they were not shown to be directly involved in fighting” the lawyer said. The FSA is a loose faction of Syrian armed groups that formed in 2011 to oppose al-Assad’s violent response to popular protests.
“Meanwhile, the judge in the office next door wouldn’t even file charges against people for belonging to the FSA, unless they committed serious crimes. That’s how big of a political difference there was,” the lawyer said. “It was collective punishment for opposing the regime.”
That aligns Sawan with the pro-Assad political forces in Lebanon, namely Hezbollah and its allies the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Amal Movement who hold a majority in Parliament and named Diab’s now-caretaker government.
The FPM was founded by President Michel Aoun, while House Speaker Nabih Berri is the head of Amal. Officials affiliated with both parties had knowledge of the presence of the highly explosive material at Beirut’s port, including Customs Chief Badri Daher, who was appointed by the FPM, is a staunch supporter of Aoun and visits him on a regular basis.
Pro-FPM pundits celebrated Sawan’s appointment. “Rest assured, his sword is the truth,” pro-FPM writer Charbel Khalil tweeted.
Releasing the colonel
Aside from the terrorism cases that were a regular affair in Lebanon, especially following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Sawan took on a number of more high-profile cases in the past year.
Two of them stand out for the involvement of senior security forces and high-level politics.
The first case is the killing of Lebanese protester Alaa Abou Fakher in November 2019 by 1st Adjutant Charbel Ajeil, who was driving his commanding officer, Colonel Nidal Daou.
Protesters had been blocking roads across the country at the time in an effort to force out Lebanon’s corrupt, entrenched political class. One of those men was Abou Fakher, who was standing in a road south of Beirut when a car transporting Ajeij and Daou tried to push through the roadblock.
Protesters tried to prevent the car from getting through, and Ajeij shot Abou Fakher at point-blank range, killing him in front of his wife and young son in harrowing scenes that were caught on camera.
It was a massive event. Protesters gathered across the country, bathing streets and squares in the amber glow of candlelight vigils, proclaiming him the first “martyr” of their revolution.
Daou was ordered to be arrested by the military court on charges of “involvement” in the murder. Luay Ghandour, a lawyer representing Abou Fakher’s family, said several witnesses had heard Daou say either “shoot” or “shoot him”, just before Ajeij fired the shots.
But Sawan ordered him released, pending investigation, just two weeks after the crime.
Abou Fakher’s family were infuriated and threatened protests. An appeal was filed and in late January, the military court annulled Sawan’s decision to release Daou, based on testimony by witnesses. Daou was arrested once again.
Then, on April 6, Sawan once again ordered Daou released, this time based on a request by Daou’s lawyers. He took the decision during a nationwide lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic, which Abou Fakher’s family said had been used to “smuggle suspicious decisions”, at a time when street-level pressure was no more possible. They also alleged intervention by politicians or security forces.
“Sawan is a competent judge but he’s very close to security forces. He let this colonel out even though he participated in a murder,” Ghandour said. “I don’t know how objective he will be when it comes to the involvement of security forces in the case of the port explosion.”
State media also noted Sawan’s unusually-intense support for security forces, saying he is “one of the few judges who issued indictments against anyone who fought against the Lebanese army”.
The Lebanese army and State Security knew about the presence of the highly explosive cache at Beirut’s port long before it exploded, and members of both forces have been arrested in the continuing investigations.
“Sawan’s role at the military court is quite literally to protect the military institution and soldiers,” said Diala Chehadeh, a Lebanese human rights lawyer who regularly defends cases at the military court. “There are questions of whether he can be objective here.”
In a separate case in the summer of 2019, Sawan was the military investigative judge presiding over investigations into a clash between supporters of rival Druze minority parties: the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) of Walid Joumblatt and the Lebanese Democratic Party (LDP) of Talal Arslan.
A minister affiliated with Arslan was driving through the mountain town of Qabrshmoun – which translates to “The Grave of Eshmun”, the Phoenician god of healing – when supporters of the PSP opened fire on his convoy.
Two of the minister’s bodyguards were killed and a number of others injured.
Arslan and his allies Hezbollah and the FPM turned the case into a national issue to exert pressure on their political rivals, including the PSP. They paralysed cabinet for more than a month amid Arslan’s demand that the case be transferred to the Judicial Council, which would give it added weight.
A lead military judge transferred the case to Sawan, and ordered him to interrogate those accused of opening fire. But Sawan received a call from then-Justice Minister Salim Jreissati, asking him to transfer the case to a judge close to the FPM, Marcel Bassil, according to three lawyers familiar with the matter, including Saghieh.
In doing so, he helped the FPM secure control over a case that they had a direct interest in politicising.
Jreissati did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s clear that he implemented the political order he got, even though it is his job to make decisions regarding the case and the justice minister has no role there,” Saghieh said.
“He lost his independence,” Saghieh said, noting the political pressures associated with the Beirut blast investigation would likely be much greater.
No time for placing bets
The Beirut explosion case that Sawan is now leading is unprecedented in the history of Lebanon. It directly concerns tens of thousands of people who were either injured, had their homes destroyed, lost people close to them and will be picking up the pieces of their lives for years to come.
Its scale has also made the explosion a national and international issue.
So far, the Lebanese public has expressed little confidence in the investigation, owing to a long history of impunity for crimes that have left Lebanon crisis-ridden, bankrupt and forlorn – a country bathed in “corruption, but with no one corrupt”, as the sarcastic local saying goes.
Local and international rights groups and the families of some victims have called for an international investigation, or at least an investigation empowered by international experts, saying it is the only way to achieve accountability given the sad state of Lebanon’s judiciary.
Najem, the justice minister, previously told Al Jazeera the blast case was a chance for Lebanon’s judiciary to show “they can do their jobs and win back the confidence of the people”.
But few survivors have shown a willingness to place bets on those odds – especially when it concerns the lives of their friends and family, their capital city and their country.
“From appointing high-level judges to making late-night phone calls in individual cases, the political class has undermined the independence of the judiciary at every possible opportunity – especially in cases involving official corruption or shortcomings,” said Nadim Houri, the director of the Arab Reform Initiative and a lawyer specialised in human rights.
“The net result has been a culture of total impunity for politicians and security officers.”
Follow Timour Azhari on Twitter: @TimourAzhari