BEIRUT: An official at the Venus construction firm told The Daily Star Monday that the firm violated the law when it demolished a disputed Phoenician port in Beirut, arguing that the violation was the result of an administrative mistake.
“We did not have the legal right to carry out digging at the site on June 26 because our license had expired and we are about to pay a fine of LL500,000,” Mohammad Kassem, the managing director of Venus, told The Daily Star.
On June 26, the firm demolished the Beirut site that has been said to be a port dating back to at least 500 B.C.
Dry docks from the Phoenician era and the remains of a Roman temple from the second century A.D. were discovered during excavations by local and international archaeologists between 2009 and 2011.
However, a team from the Directorate General of Antiquities that was tasked by Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun to look into the site later concluded it had no historical significance and was not a port.
Both decisions were approved by the DGA’s director, Asaad Seif.
Beirut Governor Nassif Qaloush has not yet renewed Venus’ license to dig at the site, as two Beirut judges are studying the case after civil society activists challenged its demolition in court.
One of the judges, Nadim Zouein, refused Monday to extend a temporary construction ban he had placed last month on the Venus-owned Plot 1398 at Mina al-Hosn, saying the Shura Council was best placed to address the issue.
Meanwhile, the second judge has tasked three experts to investigate the June 26 demolition.
“I had hoped to extend the ban on construction at the site due to the presence of important archaeological findings there, but as a regular judge I cannot stop what the Culture Minister has decided,” Zouein told The Daily Star.
“If the minister’s decision is illegal, then overturning it is the responsibility of the Shura Council,” he added.
Last month, Layyoun issued Decree 70 and revoked his predecessor Salim Wardy’s Decree 25, which deemed some 1,200 of the land Venus owns as a protected archaeological site. Decree 25 made it illegal to build on the land.
During a news conference at the Press Federation Monday, Venus officials said that because of the hold on construction, they had lost millions of dollars. The $500 million Venus Towers project is to include three skyscrapers, a garden and four floors of underground parking. It is set to take up 7,500 square meters of land.
Kassem said there was no solid evidence of the presence of ship building or a port on Plot 1398.
“The site was preserved for three years ... we waited a lot, we suffered a lot and yet there was no solid evidence that there was a port at the site,” Kassem said.
Hassan Jaafar, assistant managing director at Venus, added that the firm knew that the site lacked historical import before Layyoun’s decree.
“We didn’t have to wait for Layyoun’s decision to be published, because it was clear to us that the site did not contain anything of historical significance,” Jaafar said.
Jaafar added that the company had decided to go forward with construction based on the conclusions Layyoun’s team of four archaeological experts, including Professors Ralph Pedersen and Hans Curvers.
But Venus officials also downplayed some of Curvers’ conclusions; he called for preserving the site because of its historical importance.
“It [the plot] contains the story of yet another revival of the city in the second century B.C. It is this part of the story that can be best preserved on site, through dismantling and integration or conserving it,” Curvers wrote in his December 2011 28-page assessment of the site.
When asked by The Daily Star about Curvers’ report, officials at Venus said that the culture minister had made a decision based on the work of the entire four-person team, and not solely on Curvers’ conclusions.
Venus officials also argued that because of the planned underground parking lot, the Venus Towers project could not coexist with preservation of any part of the site.
Venus also criticized a recent campaign launched by former culture ministers against the firm, saying that they did not want to participate in political bickering between the current government and the former ministers.