Lebanese judge goes after top officials over port blast

The move by Tarek Bitar will include senior security officials and politicians, including caretaker PM Hassan Diab.

Beirut Picks Up The Pieces After Deadly Blast
The explosion at Beirut's port killed more than 200 people and injured thousands [File: Chris McGrath/Getty Images]

A Lebanese judge investigating last year’s Beirut port blast announced legal procedures against a number of politicians and security chiefs, including the acting premier, a judicial source and the state news agency reported on Friday.

The move – about 11 months after the blast – was praised by families of the victims and survivors as a bold step by Judge Tarek Bitar.

Judge Bitar, who became the lead investigator into the blast after his predecessor was removed in February, will call in caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and others, the agency said, although it said no dates had yet been set.

Bitar also asked the 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 for two legislators who were charged by his predecessor, and a former interior minister.

Entire neighbourhoods were destroyed in Beirut’s port blast [File: Hannah McKay/Reuters]

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.

At least 211 people died in the August 4 blast when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored unsafely for years, detonated at the capital’s port. Some 6,500 people were injured and entire neighbourhoods destroyed.

The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded and was the most destructive single incident in Lebanon’s troubled history.

‘There is hope’

William Noon, whose brother Joe, a firefighter, was killed while extinguishing the massive fire that led to the port blast, said Bitar was starting to deliver on his promises.

“Today I felt that there is hope and that we are going somewhere,” he told The Associated Press news agency, adding the charges filed by Bitar were similar to those of his predecessor – an indication that those people were apparently to blame.

Noon, however, said he expected interference from politicians, adding victims’ families plan to take to the streets if Bitar is not allowed to carry on with his work.

It was not immediately clear if Diab would accept to be questioned by Bitar, after declining to be interrogated by former prosecutor Fadi Sawwan last December.

In an interview with the AP late last year, Diab, who resigned following the explosion, said he was being singled out and charged while others knew more, calling it “diabolical”.

He formally asked parliament to lift the immunity of three lawmakers: former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, former Minister of Public Works Ghazi Zeiter, and former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk. He also asked the bar association for permission to question former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos.

Machinery works at the site of buildings that collapsed by the explosion at the city’s port area [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

NNA said they will be questioned over possible intentional crimes of killing and negligence. Families of the victims and survivors of the blast have accused the ruling political class of corruption and negligence that led to the explosion of ammonium nitrate.

Ali Hassan Khalil and Zeiter are members of the bloc of Lebanon’s powerful Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and along with Fenianos are strong allies of the Hezbollah group.

Bitar was named to lead the investigation in February after Sawwan 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 imprisoned 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.

Source: News Agencies