Lebanese judge charges PM, ex-ministers over Beirut port blast

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The judge investigating the Beirut port blast charged caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers with negligence over the explosion that killed 200 people and devastated the Lebanese capital.

FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab speaks to the media outside Beirut’s international airport, Lebanon April 5, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir//File Photo

Diab, whose cabinet resigned over the August blast after taking office in early 2020, said his conscience was clear and accused the judge of breaching the constitution.

Four months after one of the largest non-nuclear explosions on record, which injured thousands of people, victims are still waiting for the result of the investigation. Lebanese leaders had promised it would come within days of the blast.

The explosion added to the challenges facing Lebanon, which has been crushed by a mountain of debt after decades of state waste and corruption, leading to its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Lebanon’s sectarian leaders are still haggling over who will be in the new cabinet.

Judge Fadi Sawan called Diab and the three former ministers in for questioning “as defendants” next week, state news agency NNA said on Thursday.

The others charged were former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, the top aide to Lebanon’s influential Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, as well as former public works ministers Ghazi Zeaiter and Youssef Finianos, the agency said.

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Zeaiter, who said he would comment once he was officially informed of the charges, headed the public works ministry in 2014, soon after the arrival in Beirut port of the Rhosus ship that was carrying tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

The highly explosive chemicals were stored for years in the port, which lies in the heart of the capital.

There was no immediate comment from Khalil and Finianos.

Lawyers are divided in Lebanon about whether former or current ministers enjoy immunity in this probe.

Thursday’s move showed Sawan sided with those saying immunity does not apply in this case, said Nizar Saghieh, head of The Legal Agenda, a research and advocacy organisation.

“This is a positive thing, meaning it has opened the door to bringing the ministers to account,” he said.

A senior judicial source said Sawan did not have the power to indict lawmakers and ministers, adding that such action was the jurisdiction of a special court, which includes seven lawmakers and eight judges.

Sawan sent a letter last month asking parliament to probe 10 former ministers. When asked about the letter, parliament speaker Berri said “we have done what needs to be done and replied to him” without elaborating.

Several officials have been detained in connection with the blast, including the port and customs chiefs, and dozens have testified as witnesses, including Diab and former ministers.

But many Lebanese remain sceptical that senior politicians will be held to account, fearing the truth behind events leading up to the blast will never emerge from a system riven by corruption.

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