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Fadi Sawan: The man leading the Beirut explosion investigation | Lebanon News



Beirut, Lebanon – Fadi Sawan was not the first choice to lead investigations into Lebanon’s single-most deadly 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 Fadi 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 is also married to the sister of former 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.

Political stances

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.”

Eshmun’s grave

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.

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Charles Mbire gains $1.2 million as stake in MTN Uganda rises above $51 million



Ugandan businessman and MTN Uganda Chairman Charles Mbire has seen the market value of his stake in MTN Uganda surge above $51 million in just two days, as the share price in the leading teleco company increased by a single digit.

The single-digit bump in the share price caused the market value of Mbire’s stake to gain UGX4.42 billion ($1.24 million) in less than two days.

The million-dollar increase in the value of his stake came after Uganda’s largest telecom company delivered the country’s largest-ever IPO through the listing of 22.4 billion ordinary shares on the Uganda Securities Exchange (USE).

Upon completing the largest IPO in Uganda’s history, MTN Uganda raised a record UGX535 billion ($150.4 million) from the applications that it received for a total of 2.9 billion shares, including incentive shares.

As of press time, Dec. 7, shares in the company were trading at UGX204.95 ($0.0574), down six basis points from their opening price this morning.

Data gathered by Billionaires.Africa revealed that since the telecom company registered its shares on the Ugandan bourse on Mon., Dec. 6, its share price has increased by 2.5 percent from UGX200 ($0.056) to UGX204.95 ($0.0574) as of the time of writing, as retail investors sustained buying interest long after the public offering.

The increase in the company’s share price caused the market value of Mbire’s 3.98-percent stake to rise from UGX178.45 billion ($49.96 million) to UGX182.86 billion ($51.2 million).

In less than two days, his stake gained more than UGX4.42 billion ($1.24 million).

In a statement after the successful listing of MTN Uganda’s shares, Mbire said the IPO shows the confidence that Ugandans and other investors have in the company, its brand and strategic intent.

“We commend all the regulators for their support in our work to become a USE-listed company and to comply in a timely manner with the listing provisions of the national telecommunications operators’ license,” he said.

Steady but sure-MBIRE who is the biggest investor on Ugandas Stock exchange with stocks valued at more than $55 million is laughing all the way to the bank after MTN declared the latest dividend payout.He has steadily grown his business empire which is believed to be more that $350 million (debt free).

Steady but sure-MBIRE who is the biggest investor on Ugandas Stock exchange with stocks valued at more than $55 million is laughing all the way to the bank after MTN declared the latest dividend payout.He has steadily grown his business empire which is believed to be more that $350. ( debt free).

He is into communications-revenue assurance-cement-distribution-oil services-real estate-oil exploration and logistics.

Source: Billionaires Africa

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2-year-old dies at Arua hospital as nurse demands Shs 210,000 bribe




A two-year-old child died at Arua Regional Referral hospital after a nurse, Paul Wamala demanded a bribe amounting to Shs 210,000 before carrying out an operation. 

The incident happened on Saturday, after Aron Nabil, a two-year-old child was referred to the hospital for an operation after he was diagnosed with intestinal obstruction, a medical emergency caused by a blockage that keeps food or liquid from passing through the small intestine or large intestine.

According to the relatives of the child, Wamala allegedly asked them to initially give him Shs 30,000 to buy medicines to commence the procedure. He however returned shortly asking for an additional Shs 180,000 from the relatives.

Emily Adiru, a resident of Osu cell, in Bazar Ward, Central Division, and a relative of the child says although they paid money to Wamala, he abandoned the child without carrying out the operation. According to Adiru, Wamala later refunded Shs 200,000 through mobile money, after she threatened to report him to the police.

“They told us this boy needs an operation which was supposed to be done in the morning on Sunday at around 7 am. They took him inside there, some doctor came from the theatre, he called one of us and said, we should pay Shs 70,000 for buying medicine to start the operation. We paid the Shs 30,000 [but] after paying the Shs 30,000, after some minutes, the same man came and opened the door and called us again, and told us we should pay another Shs 100,000. We also paid the Shs 100,000 and we thought it is finished. We were outside there waiting for our patient to come out [but] then this man came back again and said we should pay another Shs 80,000,” said Adiru.

Although the operation was later carried out after a 7-hour delay, the child didn’t make it, and relatives attribute the death to negligence. Miria Ahmed, a concerned resident wonders why such incidents have persisted at the facility which is supposed to service the citizens.

“Is the problem the hospital, is it the management or it is the human resource that is the problem in the hospital? A small child like this you demand Shs 210,000 for the operation? Well, if the money was taken and the operation is done, I would say anything bad but this money was taken and the small boy was abandoned in the theatre,” she said. 

When contacted Wamala refused to comment on the allegations. Dr Gilbert Aniku, the acting hospital director says that the hospital will issue an official statement later since consultations about the matter are ongoing.

Arua City resident district commissioner, Alice Akello has condemned the actions of the nurse saying she has ordered his arrest so as to set an example to the rest. The case has been reported to Arua regional referral hospital police post under SD reference No:05/30/05/2022.

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Mexican president’s Mayan Train dealt new legal setback | Tourism News




Activists say the planned tourist train will harm the wildlife and natural features of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been dealt the latest setback to an ambitious plan to create a tourist train to connect the country’s southern Yucatan Peninsula.

On Monday, a judge indefinitely suspended construction on a portion of the project, known as the Mayan Train, saying the plans currently do not comply “with the proceedings of the environmental impact evaluation”.

The ruling follows a legal challenge by activists who said they were concerned the 60km (37 mile) portion of the train that would connect the resorts of Playa del Carmen and Tulum would adversely affect the area’s wildlife, as well as its caves and water-filled sinkholes known as cenotes.

The original plan for the disputed section was for an overpass over a highway, but the route was modified early this year to go through jungle at ground level.

The federal judge cited the “imminent danger” of causing “irreversible damage” to ecosystems, according to one of the plaintiffs, the non-governmental group Defending the Right to a Healthy Environment. In a statement, the group said that authorities had failed to carry out the necessary environmental impact studies before starting construction of the section.

Lopez Obrador had announced the ambitious project in 2018, with construction beginning in 2020. The roughly 1,500km (930 mile) cargo and passenger rail loop was presented as a cornerstone of a wider plan to develop the poorer states and remote towns throughout the about 181,000sq km (70,000sq mile) Yucatan Peninsula.

The railway is set to connect Caribbean beach resorts with Mayan archaeological ruins, with authorities aiming to complete the project by the end of 2023. The plan is estimated to cost about $16bn.

The project has split communities across the region, with some welcoming the economic development and connectivity it would bring. Others, including some local Indigenous communities, have challenged the project, saying it could not only disrupt the migratory routes of endangered species, including jaguars, tapirs and ocelots, but could also potentially damage centuries-old Mayan archaeological sites.

The National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism, the government agency overseeing the project, has said that it expects to “overcome” the latest challenge and that work should continue after an environmental impact statement is finalised. It said the Environment Ministry was currently reviewing its environmental application for the project.

For his part, Lopez Obrador has insisted the railway will not have a significant environmental effect and has accused activists of being infiltrated by “impostors”.

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