Wednesday, February 01, 2023 | Rajab 9, 1444 H
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EDITOR IN CHIEF- ABDULLAH BIN SALIM AL SHUEILI

Lebanon blast investigator charges ex-PM, top official

A view shows the justice symbol monument placed near the grain silo damaged during the 2020 port blast, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday. — Reuters
A view shows the justice symbol monument placed near the grain silo damaged during the 2020 port blast, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday. — Reuters

BEIRUT: The judge probing the 2020 Beirut blast has charged Lebanon’s top public prosecutor, the then-premier and other senior current and former officials in connection with the devastating explosion, judicial sources said and court summons show.


Judge Tarek Bitar unexpectedly resumed an inquiry on Monday after it was paralysed for more than a year by political resistance and legal complaints filed by top officials he was seeking to question. The explosion on August 4, 2020 was caused by hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port in poor conditions since it was unloaded in 2013.


So far, no senior official has been held to account.


Bitar has charged prime minister Hassan Diab and former ministers with homicide with probable intent, according to court summons seen by Reuters on Tuesday.


He also charged Prosecutor General Ghassan Oweidat, the head of Lebanon’s domestic intelligence agency Major General Abbas Ibrahim, former army commander Jean Kahwaji and other current and former security and judicial officials, court sources said.


It was not immediately clear what they had been charged with, but one judicial source said Bitar had found Oweidat had not acted responsibly with regards to the ammonium nitrate.


Reuters could not immediately reach Diab or Oweidat for comment. Ibrahim declined to comment on reports he had been charged when contacted by Reuters on Monday. Kahwaji declined to comment.


All those previously charged by Bitar have denied wrongdoing.


Oweidat on Tuesday sent Bitar an official letter saying that Bitar’s probe remained suspended and that no official decision had been taken on whether he could continue investigating, according to a copy of the correspondence seen by Reuters.


Bitar’s previous efforts to interrogate top officials over the explosion that killed 220 people and shattered parts of Beirut have been hindered by factions including the Hezbollah.


The group has campaigned against Bitar as he sought to question its allies and it also accused Washington of meddling in the probe. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly called for him to be replaced in 2021.


The investigation was paralysed in early 2022 by the retirement of judges from a court that must rule on several such complaints against Bitar before he can continue.


The court has been awaiting the appointment of new judges to resume its work, a step authorities have not taken.


Bitar met French judges visiting Beirut last week as part of a French investigation into the explosion, whose victims included two French nationals.


He was unable to share documents with them at the time because the investigation was frozen. Bitar resumed work on the basis of a legal interpretation challenging the reasons for its suspension, the judicial sources said. Diab, an academic, became prime minister in January 2020 and resigned less than a week after the blast.


Bitar’s predecessor swiftly charged him and several former officials with negligence over the chemicals, but that judge was removed in 2021 following political interference in the file.


Diab said in a statement in 2020 that he was confident his hands were clean and that he had dealt transparently with the file of the explosion. — Reuters


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