Lebanon MPs stall lifting immunity in port blast probe
Caretaker Interior Minister Mohamed Fahmy rejects request from lead judge Tareq Bitar to question head of General Security agency Abbas Ibrahim.
Lebanese legislators on Friday held up an investigation into the Beirut port blast, less than a month before its first anniversary, demanding more proof before they lift immunity for ex-ministers wanted for questioning.
Hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser exploded on the dockside at Beirut port last August 4, killing more than 200 people, injuring thousands and ravaging swathes of the capital.
Afterwards, it emerged that officials had known about the explosive substance being stored unsafely at the port for years.
Earlier this month, the lead judge in the case, Tareq Bitar, said he had demanded that parliament lift the immunity of ex-finance minister Ali Hasan Khalil, former public works minister Ghazi Zaiter and ex-interior minister Nohad Machnouk.
Bitar said he was looking at possible charges of “probable intent to murder” and “negligence”.
The request from Bitar to question Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of the powerful General Security agency, was rejected by caretaker Interior Minister Mohamed Fahmy in a letter to the justice minister.
In a statement, Ibrahim said he was subject to the law like all Lebanese, but the probe should take place “far away from narrow political considerations”.
Deputy speaker Elie Ferzli said the parliament’s administration and justice committee met on Friday and decided to “request all evidence available in the investigation, as well as all documents that prove suspicions”.
He said the committee would reconvene once it had received a reply, to decide whether or not to waive immunity.
Lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh said the committee’s request went against the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature, and “violated the confidentiality of the investigation”.
“They’re just trying to buy time,” he charged.
Speaking from Beirut, Ayman Raad, a lawyer representing one of the victims of the explosion, told Al Jazeera that Lebanese law stipulates that the judge investigating the blast must get authorisation to question a public servant from his superiors.
“The minister of interior refused to give permission for the judge to question General Ibrahim, saying that in his view there was no fault committed by the general,” said Raad.
“The legal options are … that the general prosecutor requests of the lead judge to bypass the permission that was denied by the minister and give the lead investigator authorisation to question the general. That is what has now been requested.
“But due to the politicisation of the legal system … I do not see this happening soon,” he said.
The hashtag #lift_immunity_now began trending in Lebanon as protesters gathered outside the residence of the parliament speaker Nabih Berri where the committee meeting took place.
“Immunity has to be lifted immediately,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, a representative of families of those killed in the explosion.
The activist, who lost his brother in the disaster, said stalling the decision was “shameful, in view of the size of the crime”.
Protesters then headed to the interior ministry following media reports that the caretaker minister had not allowed Bitar to question top intelligence official Abbas Ibrahim over the blast.
There was no statement from the minister’s office.
Ibrahim said he was “not above the law”, but urged against any “political calculations”.
The outgoing premier, Hassan Diab, has been charged in the probe and Bitar has called him in for questioning.
The judge has also said he is looking at interrogating former public works minister Yusef Fenianos.
Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for a UN investigation into the explosion.
Bitar became the lead investigator into the blast after his predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, was removed in February following requests from two former ministers he had charged over the blast.
Sawan had charged three ex-ministers and the outgoing prime minister Hassan Diab with negligence. But they refused to be questioned as suspects, accusing him of overstepping his powers.