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Rule of LawLebanon

Lebanon blast investigator charges ex-PM, top prosecutor

January 24, 2023

The Beirut port blast investigator has resumed his probe after a suspension lasting more than a year. He's now charged the prosecutor general and seven others, but the prosecutor has deemed the probe's restart illegal.

Smoke rises after a fire at a warehouse with explosives at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, 2020.
Nearly two and a half years after the blast, a probe into who's responsible still fails to make any headwayImage: Houssam Shbaro/AA/picture alliance

A Lebanese judge investigating the devastating 2020 Beirut port blast has charged the country's top prosecutor, the then-prime minister and other top officials in connection to the explosion, judicial sources said. 

Judge Tarek Bitar resumed his investigation, stalled for some 13 months, in a surprise move on Monday.

According to a court summons cited by Reuters, Bitar has charged former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and the former public works minister, Ghazi Zeaiter, with homicide with probable intent.

Prosecutor General Ghassan Oweidat and top intelligence officials Abbas Ibrahim and Tony Saliba were also charged in the high profile case.

Judge Bitar also announced he was summoning at least 13 suspects throughout the month of February for questioning, including officials who he has indicted, such as former Prime Minister Diab.

Since the August 2020 blast,little progress has been made on the investigation front. Lebanon's ruling elite, infamous for corruption, are believed to be behind the stalling of the probe, with Bitar being the second judge to preside over the investigation.

What happened at the Beirut blast?

On  August 4, 2020, a massive explosion rocked Lebanon's capital city, killing over 200 and leaving the houses of nearly a quarter of its inhabitants unlivable.

The explosion was due to hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, unsafely stored at a warehouse in the port in poor conditions for years.

No official has been held accountable for the blast, though top officials in the country are believed to have been warned about the presence of the ammonium nitrate.

Why is the investigator's decision controversial?

Bitar was forced to suspend his probe for more than a year after a barrage of lawsuits filed against him, mainly from politicians he had summoned on charges of negligence.

In late 2021, judges retired from a court that had to rule on the complaints filed against Bitar, effectively paralyzing the investigation until they were replaced and the complaints were settled.

When resuming the probe on Monday, Bitar argued that he was acting on the basis of a legal interpretation which challenges the reasons for suspending the investigation in the first place.

The top prosecutor, meanwhile, rejected the resumption of the probe. He stressed that Bitar's investigation remained suspended, since the complaints filed against the judge had yet to be looked into at court.

The legal intricacies surrounding Bitar's resumption of the investigation are therefore expected to impact the degree to which his decisions are upheld.

A week ago, Bitar met French judges who were visiting Beirut as part of a French investigation into the blast, whose victims included French nationals.

No one has yet been held accountable for Beirut blast: DW's Mohamed Chreyteh

rmt/nm(AFP, AP, Reuters)