Beirut blast judge to question top politicians, security officials

Beirut blast judge to question top politicians, security officials
The announcement comes as the year anniversary of the blast approaches

The Lebanese judge leading an investigation into a massive blast at Beirut port which killed over 200 people has announced he will question senior politicians, including the former prime minister and current security chiefs, and has requested parliament lift immunity for several ex-ministers.

The bold move, made just a month shy of the anniversary of the explosion, was welcomed by family members of those killed and survivors who had been increasingly frustrated that nobody senior would ever be held to account.

Judge Tarek Bitar, whose predecessor was removed in February following legal challenges by two former ministers, confirmed charges including negligence against outgoing PM Hassan Diab. He also summoned the ex-premier for questioning, the country’s National News Agency reported.

According to the same news report, MR Bitar also asked the caretaker government and the interior ministry for permission to question two of Lebanon’s most prominent security chiefs: the head of General Security Directorate, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, and the head of State Security, Major General Tony Saliba.

Separately, he asked parliament to lift immunity granted to former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter and former Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk as a first step towards charging them.

He also asked the bar association for permission to question former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos.

The NNA also reported they will be questioned for possible intentional crimes of killing and negligence, which are more serious charges than before.

As many as 3000 tonnes of poorly stored ammonium nitrate, an explosive material used to make fertiliser, blew up on the 4 August killing 211 people, injuring more than 6000 and destroying swathes of downtown Beirut.

The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded.

A six-year damning paper trail shows that senior officials, including the president of the country, knew about the dangerous explosive stockpile but did nothing about it.

Mr Diab and the same ex-officials had been charged last year by Bitar’s predecessor judge Fadi Sawan, but they refused to be questioned as suspects. Despite uproar in Lebanon, the ex officials accused him of overstepping his powers, secured immunity and Sawan later stepped down.

Judge Bitar also filed charges against former army commander General Jean Kahwaji and former head of military intelligence Brigadier General Kameel Daher, as well as two other retired intelligence generals, and said he will also be pursuing judges.

Relatives of those killed and injured welcomed the actions taken by the judge believing it was one step closer to justice.

“Today I felt that there is hope and that we are going somewhere,” William Noon, whose brother Joe was a firefighter who tried to put out the fire that led to the blast, told the Associated Press.

Experts and independent journalists investigating the blast agreed.

Lebanese lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh called the decision “courageous”.

“He is opening again the battle of (lifting) immunities against influential people,” he wrote on Twitter.

Riad Kobaissi, a prominent Lebanese journalist who has spent years investigating corruption at the port, said that the judge had also made a politically savvy move by announcing the measures against different politicians and security personnel across Lebanon’s diverse and fractured political landscape.

Lebanese supporters of President Michel Aoun hold a banner during a protest calling for “truth and justice” in relation to the Aug. 4 explosion that devastated Beirut port and parts of the Lebanese capital

“The charges are also more serious than before, previously it was just negligence [which is a misdemeanour],” he added

“It’s smart to announce this so close to the anniversary as citizens will be outraged if this gets rejected by parliament. It will have been a year with no movement forward.”

Bitar was named to lead the investigation in February after Sawan was removed following legal challenges by senior officials he had accused of negligence that led to the blast.

In mid-April, Bitar ordered the release of six people, including security officers, who had been detained for months. Among those released was an officer who had written a detailed warning to top officials prior to the explosion about the dangers of the material stored at the port.

Agencies contributed to this report