Beirut Tunnel Flood a Result of Negligence

Youssef denied that he or the contractor were to blame. He said, “Everything was proceeding at the airport road tunnel to the best of our abilities, but what happened has happened.”. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah).

By: Mohamed Nazzal

Published Monday, December 23, 2013

It was an act of God, according to Lebanese MP Ghazi Youssef. In his view, God wanted to humiliate the motorists on Beirut’s airport road tunnel. This was Youssef’s response to charges of “negligence and sabotage” brought against Middle East Airport Services (MEAS), of which he is chairman. Youssef enjoys parliamentary immunity and was spared from being charged.

On December 19, Lebanon’s Financial Prosecutor Ali Ibrahim achieved a substantial feat by charging the Middle East Airlines’ subsidiary MEAS with “negligence and sabotage.”

Claims that the flooding of the tunnel connecting Beirut to the international airport two weeks ago – a scandal by any measure – was an act of God will no longer stand. The finger can be firmly pointed at MEAS, chaired by Future Movement MP Ghazi Youssef.

Speaking to Al-Akhbar, sources close to Judge Ibrahim said, “[The judge] wanted to charge specific people, most notably MP Youssef, in light of their direct responsibility. But due to the parliamentary immunity he enjoys, and the complicated procedures needed to lift it – which we know won’t happen – something concrete and realistic had to be done so that people are not stung a second time if it is not determined who was responsible.”

Once again, the judiciary’s hands are tied when it comes to the “get-out-of-jail-free card” that is parliamentary privilege in Lebanon. Only once since the Taif Accord has parliamentary immunity been lifted on an MP, and even then, this happened only after “political cover” was withdrawn.

The sources said that while the judiciary can indeed request to lift immunity from Youssef, the request would probably end up with the pile of similar requests thrown in the drawers of parliament – especially amid the current state of political paralysis and chaos in the country.

At any rate, the legal action taken against MEAS on Thursday remains a positive sign for the Lebanese. The judiciary has gone a little beyond the usual boundaries set for it, because the company in question is not “small fry.” Indeed, an MP who represents a sizeable political faction heads the company. Furthermore, Judge Ibrahim’s move proves that when the Lebanese justice system is allowed to exercise its role away from pressures and political calculations, it can open cracks in a very thick wall.

The case is now in the hands of Beirut’s First Examining Magistrate Ghassan Owaidat, who is soon expected to summon Youssef to appear before his court. But will Judge Owaidat go as far as requesting Youssef’s immunity be lifted?

This is what many Lebanese would like to see. But will the judge find himself dealing with a case governed by politics and meticulous calculations involving various factions? His choices boil down to this: either throwing another request for lifting parliamentary immunity from an MP into parliamentary limbo, or choosing another course of action to serve some justice.

Meanwhile, it is worth recalling that constitutional experts had contested the seat Youssef was elected to.

After the 2009 general election, there was a fierce debate on whether an MP candidate could also hold a post of a public nature. Article 10 of the Electoral Law states: “Board members, chairpersons, or director-generals of public institutions, public utility institutions … privileged companies, mixed-economy companies, or public-capital companies … may not run for parliament unless they resign at least six months before the end of the [previous] parliament’s term.” However, Youssef never resigned from his post.

Assaad Exonerated

Two days ago, Judge Ibrahim interviewed Youssef for almost an hour, and also interviewed Riad al-Assaad, director of al-Jaboub Lil Imar, the South Development Company, a subcontractor for MEAS. Judicial sources told Al-Akhbar that investigations established that MEAS, not Assaad’s company, was responsible for “negligence leading up to sabotage.”

The above corroborates accusations made by resigned Minister of Public Works Ghazi Aridi. Aridi produced a document in which MEAS claims to have conducted maintenance and cleaning works on the drains at the airport tunnel, only to be later contradicted by the subcontractor Assaad, who denied that MEAS retained his company’s services to carry out the works. Interestingly, according to the judicial sources, Assaad “had a positive role in the investigations, fully cooperating with Judge Ibrahim before the judge issued the charges.”

Youssef: Airport Tunnel Flooding An Act of God

Al-Akhbar contacted Youssef to query him about the charges. Youssef said he plans to hold a press conference shortly to address the issue. He added, “I am extremely surprised by the charges. It seems that the judiciary singled out the weakest link in the case, and perhaps there were pressures put on the judge.”

Youssef denied that he or the contractor were to blame. He said, “Everything was proceeding at the airport road tunnel to the best of our abilities, but what happened has happened.” Asked who he thought was responsible for the flooding, Youssef replied very simply, “It was God’s will.”

Minister Safadi in the Justice Palace

On the morning of December 19, Finance Minister Mohammed Safadi came to Judge Ali’s department at the Justice Palace in Beirut following mutual accusations of corruption between Safadi and Aridi. Informed sources told Al-Akhbar that Safadi cooperated fully with the judge, bringing with him documents supporting his arguments, just as Aridi had done before him.

According to the same sources, it is unlikely that Aridi and Safidi will be summoned again to court. Now, the sources said, the judiciary will need time to study the case.

Safadi, speaking to reporters, said that he had answered all questions and submitted the documents he had to the court. Safadi added, “There is no next session” scheduled for him, before he left for Saudi Arabia at a later time.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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