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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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Pakistan-born ‘neo-Sufi’ singer breaks free from music traditions | Arts and Culture News




New York, United States – It is a music album born in an extraordinary time of strife. The artist was not only grappling with the challenge of creating music during a pandemic, but also with the death of her younger brother.

Arooj Aftab’s third album, Vulture Prince, out on Friday, reflects this pain but stands out for the power of her musical expression.

And that power has already been recognised. Pitchfork, a respected online music magazine, named her first single, Mohabbat, the Best New Track.

The 36-year-old singer had been making waves since 2018 when the United States’ NPR network called her song Lullaby one of the Greatest Songs by 21st Century Women+, and The New York Times included her song Island No 2 in its list of 25 best classical music tracks that year.

The musical style

The Pakistan-born, Brooklyn-based artist’s musical style is inspired by a diverse range of singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Reshma, and Abida Parveen – the “queen” of Sufi music. Sounds of Greek, Egyptian and Spanish idioms are also hauntingly intermingled.

The genre can best be defined as somewhere at the intersection of Sufi, Pakistani folk, jazz fusion and semi-classical.

“I didn’t want to call it any of these. It was none of those genres. At first, I coined it neo-Sufism because I had to call it something because people can’t place it and you get lost in the sauce,” Aftab told Al Jazeera.

“It came to me as a genre during the creation of my first album listening to Abida Parveen and reading a lot of [poet] Rumi.”

While categories in music still force terminologies such as “neo-Sufism”, Aftab now has the confidence to call it something else.

Arooj Aftab’s third album, Vulture Prince, releases on Friday [Courtesy of Arooj Aftab]

“It isn’t neo-Sufi any more,” she said. “I have more confidence in using a longer sentence to describe it.”

In a musical world where lyrics often get submerged in beats and melody, Aftab makes poetry her lead singer – a quintessential characteristic of her music.

The ghazals (a form of Urdu poetry) she sings, some celebrated for decades, have a neutral cadence in their renditions, where poetry shines independent of the musical accompaniment.

Think of the minimalistic and soulful structure of Norah Jones with an even less focus on accompanying instruments.

“She breaks free from the hard, traditional norm of subcontinental music and yet remains very deep in her interpretation of that music without being guilty of cultural appropriation,” Arieb Azhar, veteran musician and commentator on Sufi music, told Al Jazeera.


Aftab says she consciously planned stripping her music from any percussion in a self-effacing way.

Madan Gopal Singh, Sufi musician and cultural historian in India, says Aftab’s “voice grain has a languorous quality”.

“With it, she has broken the hierarchy between instrumentalisation and the emergence of voice so that the dignity of both remains, and that is unique,” Singh told Al Jazeera.

Singh comes from the Indian side of Punjab province while Aftab was born in Lahore on the Pakistani side.

But the two share a serendipitous connection with a song called Mohabbat (love). It is the song with which, recollects Singh, he charmed his wife into marrying him many decades ago.

The song was originally written by Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, a poet born in 1912 in Hoshiarpur in India’s Punjab. But Hoshiarpuri died in 1973 across the border, in Karachi.

His song has since gathered a cult-like following through the renditions of famous singers, including Mehdi Hassan, Iqbal Bano, Jagjit Singh and more recently Papon.

For Singh, Aftab’s version is equally evocative.

“I love her rendition and the way she is thinking in her musical arrangement. I just wish she would look at the translations more attentively,” he said. “Then the song has potential for even more musical impact.”

The repetitive lyrics of Mohabbat – Mohabbat Karne Waale Kum Na Hongey (the number of people who love will never come down) – can have various interpretations.

“Arooj’s music is abstract enough and as abstract art, you are free to interpret it in any way you like,” said Azhar.

“It is an internalised emotion that she is projecting. One can’t say whether it is personal love or loss or political or a revolutionary expression?”

Arooj herself feels Mohabbat has many faces. She says, “Immortalising this song was a lifelong dream.”

“It could be a love song, breakup song, a political statement, a nostalgic memory. It has comforted me in so many different emotional moments,” she says, adding that the interpretation that resonated most was a “dissatisfaction with the world”.

The feeling that the song creates when you listen to it is of a “wallowing despair but that I’m OK. I am just disappointed in everyone and everything”, Aftab said.

As a young woman from Pakistan, Aftab says her journey as an artist has been a struggle [Daniel Hilsinger/Al Jazeera]

“In whichever place you look – Kashmir, India, Pakistan, the US, mass shootings, or Palestine, wherever you look, there is this unbelievable, inexcusable atrocity going on. So, Mohabbat is kind of like a ‘f*** you’ to the world.”

The struggle

As a young woman from Pakistan, Aftab says her journey as an artist has been a struggle. “In order to pursue the dream, I have sacrificed,” she says.

“Separating yourself from friends and family. It’s like self-exiling yourself because the situation doesn’t agree with you.”

In the US, she had to build a new support system, which included recruiting musicians for her album. Going to Berkeley College of Music in Boston, one of the best music schools in the world, also meant paying off student loans.

She also recollects moments where she had only $20 left in her bank account, or facing unruly audience members who misbehaved with her band’s musical equipment during a performance near Times Square.

“But it’s still been all worth it.”

Ahmer Naqwi, a Pakistani writer on popular culture, says “to do what Aftab did is quite unique” coming from a society like Pakistan.

“It is a remarkable story of Pakistani music that it keeps finding ways to thrive despite hostile financial and social obstacles,” he told Al Jazeera.

Subcontinental and global recognition

Musical and cultural experts believe Aftab’s new album has the promise to attain global recognition. But they also worry about America’s categorisation for awards like the Grammy’s.

Aftab’s music will likely fall in the US industry’s limited category of World Music.

“Grammy’s may not recognise her because they are limited in their categorisation but that doesn’t take away from the quality of her music,” said Azhar.

As for the subcontinent, and Pakistan in particular, Aftab’s music “isn’t suited for virality”, Naqwi said.

“Aftab’s music has great potential but it is difficult for me to divorce the reception of this album from the reality of Pakistani music right now. It is not a great reality.”

But Singh believes “no other musician from Pakistan is thinking like she is”.

“She has a huge future,” he said.

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Court Dismisses Appeal by Former CMB Employees




A panel of three Justices of the Court of Appeal have dismissed with costs a case filed by three representatives of 1,568 Uganda Coffee Marketing Board workers who were retrenched between 1992 – 1998 and were entitled to payment as per the Auditor General’s report of 13th November 2009.

These rushed to the Court of Appeal challenging High court decision in which Government was ordered to compensate them but they disagreed with the interest rate awarded.

The three applicants (now appellants); Basiima Kabonesa, Solome Adumo and James Musoke in 2014 dragged the Government (Attorney General) and the Management of Uganda Coffee Marketing Board (under liquidation) to court on behalf of 1,568 other workers seeking to be compensated with more than Shs 10Billion with damages and costs

On 22July 2015, the parties entered a consent Judgement where it was agreed that the plaintiffs shall be paid a sum of Shs 10,330,013,506 as total terminal benefits with an additional ten million shillings each as damages

Court then granted this sum, which was to be shared equally by all workers with 10% interest per annum on the Principle sum from date of consent Judgement up to full payment and 6% on aggravated damages from judgment date up to full payment.

However, the petitioners were not satisfied with the total sum of aggravated damages awarded to them as well as the interest on Principal sum which they described as low.

On top of that, they claimed that the trial judge erred when he awarded interest on Principal sum from judgment date to full payment instead of running from date of retrenchment to full payment.

In their unanimous judgement, justices Remmy Kasule, Godfrey Kiryabwire and Monica Mugenyi noted that the trial judge was within the law by awarding interest on terminal benefits from date of judgement.

The justices also concurred with the High Court decision of awarding the plaintiff one billion shillings as costs that have to be shared equally by all beneficiaries since the trial judge based on the condition that the consent judgment was against the Government.

Each party was ordered bare its costs at High court while the appellants were ordered to pay the costs at the appeal level.

The post Court Dismisses Appeal by Former CMB Employees first appeared on ChimpReports.

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