A Lebanese court has removed the judge leading the investigation into last year’s Beirut port blast, a move likely to further delay a probe that has faced fierce political pushback.
More than six months since the largest non-nuclear blast in history, Lebanese people still have no answers about why or how tonnes of ammonium nitrate, stored unsafely at the port for years, detonated in the heart of the city.
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The explosion killed 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed entire districts.
In December last year, Judge Fadi Sawan charged three former ministers and the outgoing prime minister with negligence over the August explosion, which compounded Lebanon’s economic meltdown.
But the officials snubbed Sawan when he sought to question them before deciding whether they should be formally indicted, accusing him of overstepping his powers.
He also faced criticism from the Shia Hezbollah and former Sunni premier Saad Hariri.
The court of cassation decided to remove Sawan from the case on Thursday after a request from two of the former ministers he charged: Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter.
A copy of the court decision, seen by Reuters news agency, cited “legitimate suspicion” over Sawan’s neutrality because his house was damaged in the blast, which devastated much of the capital.
“As soon as the judge started getting at them, they removed him right away,” said William Noun, whose firefighter brother died in the blast.
“There’s sadness and anger in us. We know there are political pressures … but we will not give up.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the judge’s removal based on a complaint from politicians was “an insult” to the victims.
“We are back to square one,” HRW researcher Aya Majzoub said. “We need answers, and Lebanon has shown that it is incapable of providing them.”
Lawyer Youssef Lahoud, representing around 1,400 victims, told Reuters the justice minister would now have to nominate another judge and get approval from the higher judicial council.