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Judge freezes work on controversial construction site as debate rages
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BEIRUT: The judiciary stepped in Friday to resolve the controversial case of the destruction of an ancient Phoenician port at a construction site in Beirut as former Culture Minister Salim Wardy blamed the current minister for secretly seeking the destruction of the ruins.

After ordering a 24-hour halt Thursday on all construction work at Plot 1398, owned by Venus construction firm, Judge Nadim Zouein extended the freeze until next Tuesday and asked the Culture Ministry and the Directorate General of Antiquities to state what kind of ruins were present at the site earlier this week.

In a news conference Friday, former culture ministers Wardy, Tammam Salam and Tarek Mitri criticized incumbent Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun’s decree 70 to revoke a former ministerial decision that designated some 1,200 square meters of the plot as a national archaeological site.

For his part, Layyoun said he would respond to the accusations in a separate news conference Saturday.

Wardy questioned the credibility of the archaeological report upon which the ministry based its decision.

A report prepared by Dr. Ralph Pederson, at the request of Venus, states that the site, which was previously believed to be an ancient Phoenician port dating back to at least 500 B.C. did not fall under the known parameters of a port or a shipyard.

Construction at Plot 1398 was stalled for more than a year following a decree issued by Wardy in 2011, then the culture minister. Wardy’s decree was based on the conclusions made by seven local and international archaeologists who recommended the preservation of the site because it included the ruins of ancient dry docks used for ship building and maintenance.

But officials at Venus told The Daily Star that Wardy had not provided enough evidence to prove the presence of an ancient port. “Wardy and his team never submitted clear-cut evidence that what was found in our land lot was effectively a Phoenician port, or that [the ruins] have any historical meaning or value,” said Hassan Jaafar, the firm’s assistant managing director.

According to Jaafar, the report prepared by Layyoun highlights errors by the archaeologists tasked by Wardy.

During the news conference Friday, Wardy called for the establishment of a committee of independent experts to re-examine the site in light of the conflicting reports published by archaeologists. He said the decision to level the land had been made in a rush and the property owner had been informed of the decision by phone.

“The property owner contacted two experts who submitted a report to the ministry, which then adopted the report’s recommendations. This means that all archaeological sites are in danger [in Lebanon],” Wardy said.

According to Wardy, the judge presiding over the case could not initiate urgent measures to stop the leveling of the land because the decision to begin work had not been formally published in the country’s Official Gazette.

For his part, Mitri asked Layyoun to provide precise and legal reasons for his decision to press ahead with construction works.

“If a current minister needs to cancel a decision made by his predecessor, then he needs to provide legal and technical reasons for the decision; if he doesn’t, we have to the right to question this,” he said.

He added that archaeological experts confirmed the necessity of preserving the site while only a single expert tasked by Layyoun had said the site did not date to the Phoenician period.

Salam criticized Layyoun, asking: “Is this a Culture Ministry or a real estate ministry?

“This unilateral action by the minister makes me question whether the Culture Ministry is really concerned about culture or about financial investments,” said Salam.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 30, 2012, on page 3.
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