Lebanese MPs accused of Beirut blast ‘cover up’ over trial move
Critics say parliamentary move for special judicial body to try officials over Beirut port blast shields them from prosecution.
Beirut, Lebanon – Dozens of Lebanese MPs have pledged support for a parliamentary motion allowing a special judicial body to investigate and try caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and four ex-ministers over last year’s Beirut Port explosion, but legal activists and the families of the blast victims slammed the move as an attempt to shield the officials from accountability.
The Beirut Port explosion on August 4 last year killed more than 200 people, wounded about 6,500, and flattened part of the Lebanese capital. Many blame officials for storing hundreds of tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate at the port, which ignited and caused the explosion.
A judicial source told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that at least 50 MPs had initially signed the motion to try the officials at the Supreme Council, a judicial body charged with matters of impeachment.
In addition to Diab, the source said the four ex-ministers included in the motion are former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, former Public Works Ministers Ghazi Zeiter and Youssef Finianos, and former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk. Khalil, Zeiter, and Machnouk are currently MPs.
The source said the council, which is comprised of eight senior judges in addition to seven legislators appointed by their peers, has “not ever tried a minister, president, or lawmaker in its history”, and critics see the move as an attempt to undermine an already stalled judicial investigation.
Earlier in July Judge Tarek Bitar, who is leading the judicial investigation into the blast, requested the lifting of immunity of several senior politicians and former and current security officials so he can prosecute them on the suspicion of criminal negligence, as well as homicide with probable intent over the blast.
However, if the ex-ministers are summoned to the Supreme Council, then Bitar would then be unable to charge them.
Legislators supporting the motion say it is in line with Lebanon’s constitution.
The judicial source said the support of 61 MPs is required for the motion to pass through a simple majority. Speaker Nabih Berri has not yet announced when Parliament will next convene.
The source expects that Parliament will likely vote to transfer the case to the Supreme Council but said that legislators could stymie the next step, which would require two-thirds of Parliament to vote for the Supreme Council to summon them.
“It’s clear that this is an attempt to obliterate the investigation,” the source said.
Relatives of the explosion’s victims were outraged by the news.
“We totally reject and condemn this cover-up of the crime of the century,” Mahdi Zahreldine, 21, whose brother Imad was killed in the blast, told Al Jazeera.
“I believe that Judge Tarek Bitar will not stay silent about this.”
Local watchdog Legal Agenda said it identified 30 MPs that endorsed the motion, calling them “the list of shame”, and said that the move would shield accused officials from prosecution.
“Legal Agenda considers this to be a fraudulent move to smuggle the suspects away from judicial investigator Tarek Bitar,” it said.
Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar, who signed the motion, told Al Jazeera that they are simply following Lebanese law, adding that they always favoured an international investigation.
“Lebanese law is clear, and nobody is above the constitution,” he said.
Since the news broke, MPs Salim Saadeh, Samy Fatfat, Dima Jamali, Adnan Traboulsi, and Nicholas Nahhas have withdrawn their names from the motion.
Other MPs who signed their names on the motion have not responded to Al Jazeera’s calls.
Calls for international probe
The parliamentary motion is the latest obstacle Judge Bitar has faced since announcing legal procedures against high-ranking current and former political and security officials earlier this month.
Caretaker Interior Minister Mohamad Fahmi rejected Bitar’s request to interrogate General Security chief Major-General Abbas Ibrahim.
Prior to Bitar’s appointment, the Lebanese Court of Cassation removed Judge Fadi Sawan in February from leading the investigation into the devastating blast, after Khalil and Zeiter filed legal complaints against him.
They argued that Sawan could not be impartial as his house was damaged in the blast.
Rights groups say the latest parliamentary motion further justifies their calls for an international probe, arguing that the country’s political parties will continue to obstruct local investigations.
“As long as the current system in Lebanon remains, the hope that we will see justice through the domestic process is incredibly slim,” Human Rights Watch Lebanon researcher Aya Majzoub told Al Jazeera.
“We need an international investigation free from the constraints of domestic Lebanese politics and built on the work Judge Bitar has already done.”