Lebanon judge faces off with top politicians over port explosion

The issue of interrogating top officials has turned into a wider battle for accountability in a country riddled with systemic corruption.

Hassan Diab stepped down days after the explosion but continues to serve as a caretaker prime minister [File: Aziz Taher/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – The judge investigating a devastating explosion at Beirut’s port in August has doubled down on a decision to interrogate the country’s outgoing prime minister and former ministers despite a campaign against him by Lebanon’s political and religious elite.

Judge Fadi Sawan on Monday set new dates for the questioning of the high-profile political figures after they declined to comply with interrogations he had planned to begin on the same day.

The judge had last week charged Prime Minister Hassan Diab, former public works ministers Ghazi Zaeiter and Youssef Fenianos and former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil with criminal negligence in connection with the explosion that killed 200 people, wounded more than 6,000 and wrecked large parts of the Lebanese capital.

In late November, Sawan had indicated in a letter to Parliament that he had “serious suspicions” about the involvement of 12 former ministers and all prime ministers who served since 2013, when a boat carrying nearly 3,000 tonnes of explosive material entered Beirut’s port. That material – ammonium nitrate – sat at the port for nearly seven years as officials failed to deal with it, before exploding on August 4.

The investigator’s decision to charge top officials was welcomed by the families of victims and organisations headed by officials opposed to Lebanon’s sectarian ruling class, including the Beirut Bar Association.

“We commend this courageous and righteous step as a sign of the boldness and toughness of the presiding judge … Go forward and we are with you!” Beirut Bar Association head Melhem Khalaf said in a statement after the charges were announced.

In contrast, politicians and religious leaders affiliated with Lebanon’s ossified ruling elite have denounced Sawan’s charges, turning the issue into a wider battle over accountability in a crisis-hit country riddled with systemic corruption.

Among those rallying behind Diab, who resigned days after the explosion and continues to serve in a caretaker capacity, are former prime ministers Saad Hariri and Tammam Salam and Lebanon’s highest Sunni Muslim authority, Dar al-Fatwa. They have characterised the charges against Diab as an attack on the position of the prime minister, which is reserved for a Sunni under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.

“The prime ministership can’t be blackmailed, that’s final. This is refused and we won’t accept it,” said Hariri, a political foe of Diab who is trying to form his fourth government.

Hariri and Salam served the first and second-longest terms as prime minister respectively during the period since the ammonium nitrate entered the port.

Other officials and parties, including Hezbollah, have said the charges against the former ministers are “political targeting” and unconstitutional due to political immunity, and that a specialised parliamentary court should try them.

However, that court has never held an official accountable, and Sawan has insisted that political immunity applies only to political responsibilities, not to the crimes he is investigating, a source close to the judge told Al Jazeera.

Nizar Saghieh, an activist lawyer and founder of rights group the Legal Agenda, said the political elite were attempting to stop Sawan in his tracks because interrogating a top official could set a precedent and usher in more accountability beyond the investigation into the port explosion.

“This is much bigger than just the port blast,” Saghieh told Al Jazeera. “This battle about the immunity of top officials and ministers is tied to all corruption cases in Lebanon,” he said, noting ministers had in the past used immunity as a way to evade investigation.

Bashar al-Halabi, a Lebanese activist and lawyer, likened the coming-together of notoriously fractious political forces against Sawan as “an attempt to hold the system in place, because if any fracture is allowed to widen it could fall on all of their heads”.

A ‘revolt against the law’

Sawan is seeking to interrogate Khalil on Wednesday, the same day he has also summoned former army Chief of Staff Walid Salman. Fenianos is due for questioning on Thursday, followed by Diab and Zaieter on Friday.

It remains unclear whether the political officials will comply this time around.

Should they decline again, Sawan could issue a decision forcing them to attend, as well as a formal warrant for their arrest, Saghieh said.

But Lebanon’s outgoing Interior Minister Mohammad Fehmi, who was appointed by Diab, said he would not implement arrest warrants against the prime minister or former ministers.

“Let [the judge] pursue me if they want. What’s important is that I don’t go against my conscience,” Fehmi said in remarks published in a local daily on Monday. He said he believed Diab was innocent and Sawan’s decision was an example of corruption in the judiciary.

“Fehmi is sending a message to the judiciary on behalf of the confessional system saying there are red lines you can’t cross,” al-Halabi, the lawyer, said. “Imagine: you have the interior mister standing against the judiciary in its quest to do the ABCs of interrogating people.”

Saghieh called on the judiciary to prosecute Fehmi for abuse of power, calling his statement “a revolt against the law.”

Source: Al Jazeera