Judge investigating Beirut port blast targets top officials in Lebanon

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A judge investigating last year's devastating port explosion in Lebanon's capital said Friday he had summoned the outgoing prime minister and taken steps towards indicting several former ministers and security officials.

Hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded on the dockside of Beirut port on August 4 last year, killing more than 200 people, injuring thousands and ravaging swathes of the capital.

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It emerged afterwards that officials had known about the explosive substance being stored unsafely at the port for years.

The slow pace of the investigation has sparked outrage at home and fueled distrust among international donors.

Tarek Bitar in February became the second judge to probe the explosion following a court order removing his predecessor, who had issued charges against prime minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers over the blast.

Bitar on Friday told a small group of journalists, including one from AFP, that he had summoned Diab, who is still indicted in the case.

He said he had also taken steps towards charging four former ministers -- ex-finance minister Ali Hasan Khalil, former public works ministers Ghazi Zeaiter and Yousef Fenianos, and ex-interior minister Nouhad Machnouk.

A view of the damaged site following the explosion at Beirut port, Aug. 26, 2020. (Reuters)
A view of the damaged site following the explosion at Beirut port, Aug. 26, 2020. (Reuters)

Bitar said he would be looking at possible charges of "probable intent to murder" and "negligence", as the officials "did not take measures to avert the risk of an explosion."

Bitar's predecessor, Fadi Sawwan, had in December last year charged Diab, Khalil, Fenianos and Zaiter with "negligence and causing death to hundreds".

But Khalil and Zaiter managed to get a court to remove Sawwan in February, arguing that the indictment of a lawmaker needed parliament clearance.

Bitar said he has requested that parliament lift the immunity of lawmakers Khalil, Zeaiter and Machnouk.

He has approached the Beirut Bar Association for permission to indict Khalil and Zeaiter, and the Tripoli Bar Association to be able to charge Fenianos, as all three are lawyers.

He also said he had taken steps towards prosecuting several former high-ranking military officials, including ex-army chief Jean Kahwaji.

Bitar said he had requested the permission of the outgoing interior minister to proceed with charges against top intelligence official Abbas Ibrahim.
Diab already testified before Sawwan in September.

He resigned after the blast, but has remained in a caretaker capacity as the divided political class has since failed to name a new government to help lift the country out of an ever-deepening economic crisis.

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