Lebanon judge asks Parliament to probe ministers over port blast

Judicial investigator asks MPs to probe current and ex-ministers dating back to 2013, when 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate arrived at Beirut port.

About 25 people have been arrested and 33 charged in the blast probe so far [File: Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon’s top investigator has asked Parliament to investigate 10 former ministers he suspects are responsible for the conditions that led to the devastating August 4 explosion that killed nearly 200 people, according to a judicial source.

In a letter to Parliament, Judicial Investigator Fadi Sawan has asked the members of Parliament to probe all current and former ministers of finance, justice and public works dating back to September 2013, when a cargo ship loaded with about 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate arrived at capital the Beirut’s port.

The highly explosive chemicals were left at the port’s Hangar 12 for nearly seven years until they exploded on August 4, destroying large parts of the city, injuring more than 6,500 people, in addition to those killed, and rendering thousands homeless.

So far, about 25 people have been arrested and 33 charged in the blast probe. Nearly 50 more, including current and former ministers and heads of security agencies, have been heard as witnesses.

“Investigations [Sawan] conducted with current and former ministers raised suspicions on the responsibility of these ministers and their failure to address the presence of ammonium nitrate in the port and deal with it responsibly despite the danger,” the source told Al Jazeera.

The ministers mentioned in Sawan’s letter include current and former justice ministers Marie-Claude Najem, Albert Sarhan, Ashraf Rifi, and Salim Jreissati; current and former finance ministers Ghazi Wazni and Ali Hasan Khalil; and current and former public works ministers Michel Najjar, Youssef Fenianos, Ghazi Zeaiter and Ghazi Aridi.

“Each of these ministers was aware of the presence of ammonium in the port, whether through written correspondence that reached them or from the port administration or through reports of the security services located in the port, but they did not take decisive decisions in this regard,” the source said.

Political immunity

Sawan’s decision to ask the parliament to investigate ministers is based on an interpretation of political immunity that puts ministers and heads of state out of his jurisdiction.

He believes a specialised body – known as the Supreme Court for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers and composed of seven members of Parliament and eight judges – can investigate ministers and ultimately hold them to account.

The body has never held a minister accountable, partially due to the high bar set for beginning any proceedings: The consent of two-thirds of Lebanon’s 128-member legislature.

Elias Hankash, a former member of Parliament and member of the Supreme Court who resigned in the wake of the Beirut blast, told Al Jazeera the court “will be unable to do anything because ministers are picked by this parliament, and MPs won’t be holding people representing them or their allies accountable”.

He says ministers should be tried in regular courts – a stance also taken by the Beirut Bar Association, which is representing hundreds of blast victims.

The families of many victims, in addition to local and international rights groups, have expressed fears the Lebanese investigation will not hold all those responsible for the blast to account and have instead called for an international probe.

Meanwhile, the parliament’s secretary-general, Adnan Daher, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday morning he had not yet received Sawan’s letter.

But the judicial source said the letter will go to the justice ministry first, as per the process, and then sent to Parliament, and that it should arrive shortly.

Source: Al Jazeera