Over the past year and a half, piles of trash have episodically accumulated in Lebanon's streets due to cycles of waste mismanagement since the beginning of the country’s garbage crisis. To dispose of the encroaching waste, residents and municipalities have allegedly resorted to illegal trash-burning that puts the population at risk of severe health complications. Several lawsuits, filed by independent attorneys, have been taken up by Lebanon’s legal system, which rarely accepts cases on behalf of civilians. However, optimism is dwindling as cases drag on with little judicial action.
Starting in June 2015, the densely populated governorates of Beirut and Mount Lebanon were gripped by a garbage crisis when the Naameh landfill was closed without an alternative dump site, sparking widespread protests.
Although the protests have long since dispersed, their call for action and accountability has been taken up by lawyers such as Nadine Moussa. In October 2015, she filed a complaint to the general prosecutor, the highest criminal judge in Lebanon, petitioning him to investigate criminal cases of trash burning. The file was then directed to the prosecutor of Mount Lebanon, who instructed local police forces to identify the arsonists.
Lebanese law dictates that municipalities are responsible for regulating waste disposal in their areas and are accountable for trash burning within their jurisdiction. Municipal officials, however, are immune from prosecution without approval from the interior minister.
Moussa told Al-Monitor that municipal governments aren’t just turning a blind eye, they are orchestrating the burns themselves. "Obviously many municipalities were asking their people to burn the garbage at night, in hiding, because it is a crime …"
According to Moussa, the police purposefully avoided singling out individuals, such as municipal officials, connected to trash-burning violations. Even without further intervention, Moussa added that the burning temporarily stopped in Mount Lebanon upon news of General Prosecutor Samir Hammoud’s request, until early January 2016.
“Once [burning] resumed in January, we started visiting the different police headquarters, in Jdeideh especially, pushing the judiciary police to do more, to call for the president of the municipalities to hold somebody accountable. They were always telling us, ‘Well, did you find someone? Did you catch a perpetrator doing [it]?’ … which I always thought was weird from the police to ask a normal citizen to catch a perpetrator. It is their job to do it.”
After numerous follow-up requests took place with officials and the filing of a new case March 4, in early October the general prosecutor decided to take the case. Judge Peter Germanos was appointed to head the lawsuit and requested the suspension of judicial immunity for Kabalan el-Achkar, the president of the municipality in Dbayeh.
“This was the first time that the public prosecution took action on the complaint presented by citizens. Even the judge congratulated me on that. He said, ‘Wow, you really did achieve something here.’ They accepted us as a party to a general prosecution action [on the public’s behalf],” Moussa said.
A trial was set for Oct. 20, and Moussa expected Achkar to be called to testify, but that was not the case when she arrived. "[The judge] tells us that the ‘poor president' of the municipality of Dbayeh, he’s not responsible, he’s not the one.’”
Other lawyers have had similar difficulties in pursuing legal action against trash burning.
Hassan Bazzi, an attorney at the Lebanese Association of Lawyers, has initiated eight outstanding lawsuits against municipalities for illegal burning, including a case in Kabreshmoon, Mount Lebanon, and another in Naameh. As in Moussa’s suit, police stations were instructed to stop use of the burn sites. The municipality of Naameh was also instructed to establish a recycling facility.
Both municipalities were given until the end of 2016 to implement these changes or face criminal prosecution.
With the passing of the new year, Bazzi told Al-Monitor that no changes have been implemented and that the courts show no sign of proceeding with his claim.
Attorneys at Khattar Associates, Jihan Khattar and Mona Farhat, made another appeal to stop trash burning in the municipality of Jdeideh-Bouchrieh. On Dec. 29, 2015, they submitted a request to Judge Hassan Hamdan.
“We filed the lawsuit. We got the reply of the municipality, then we filed our second memo, and then the judge did not make a decision very quickly,” Khattar told Al-Monitor. “But eventually, what happened is that the situation was resolved on its own because — if you remember — [the government] decided to reopen the garbage dumps [in Costa Brava, Burj Hammoud and Naameh]. … Sometimes, they are burning. They are burning waste — not as much as before and not all over Lebanon, but we still have this problem.”
Although she is glad that trash burning appears to have decreased in frequency, Moussa worries that now there is even less incentive for the judge in her case to reprimand the perpetrators.
Additional hearings have been scheduled, but no municipal officials have been called to testify.
Lebanon’s new government shows little interest in addressing the issue. “What is supposed to happen, I hope, [is] that the new the commander in chief will take action and catch somebody, but I have my doubts,” Moussa said.
Burnings continue to jeopardize public health in Lebanon. A 2016 study by the Air Quality Associated Research Unit found that trash burning increased airborne carcinogens by 416 times and contributes to cancer, respiratory disease and birth defects.
Up until February 2016, the Ministry of Public Health had issued fines to 85 municipalities for trash burning, and 121 fines between then and October, according to information obtained by Al-Monitor. It is unclear if these fines were issued by local judicial authorities.
Khattar said she hopes these cases will eventually progress. “[Arsonists] have to be held accountable because here it is the health of people at stake, it’s their lives.”
Scott Preston contributed to this report.