This content was published on Jan 24, 2023 – Jul 13:51,
January 24, 2023 – 13:51
By Taimour Azhari and Laila Bassam
BEIRUT (Reuters) – The judge investigating the Beirut port explosion in 2020 has indicted Lebanon’s attorney general, the then prime minister and other current and former senior officials in connection with the devastating explosion, according to judicial sources and a court summons.
Judge Tariq Al-Bitar unexpectedly resumed the investigation on Monday after being paralyzed for more than a year in light of political obstacles and legal challenges filed by the senior officials he was seeking to interrogate.
The explosion occurred on August 4, 2020, in a warehouse in the port where hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in poor conditions since it was unloaded in 2013. So far, no senior official has been held accountable.
Al-Bitar charged then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab and former ministers with “homicide with probable intent,” according to a court summons seen by Reuters on Tuesday.
Judicial sources stated that he also filed charges against the Public Prosecutor, Judge Ghassan Oweidat, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, Director General of Public Security, former Army Commander Jean Kahwaji, and former security and judicial officials or who are still in service.
The charges against them were not immediately clear, but a judicial source said that Al-Bitar concluded that Oweidat had not acted responsibly with regard to the ammonium nitrate.
Reuters was not immediately able to reach Diab or Oweidat for comment. Major General Ibrahim declined to comment on reports of charges against him when contacted by Reuters on Monday. Kahwaji also declined to comment.
All those accused by al-Bitar in the past have denied involvement in any wrongdoing.
Oweidat sent an official letter on Tuesday to Bitar saying the investigation was still pending and that no official decision had been made on whether he could resume the investigation, according to a copy seen by Reuters.-
“We assure you that your hand is blind,” he said, according to the letter.--
Al-Bitar’s efforts to interrogate senior officials about the explosion, which killed 220 people and caused widespread destruction in Beirut, had previously faltered due to resistance from some factions, including the well-armed, Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.
Hezbollah launched a campaign against Al-Bitar after he sought to interrogate the group’s Lebanese allies. Hezbollah accused Washington of interfering in the course of the investigation. He called on Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, to replace Al-Bitar.
Al-Bitar met with French judges visiting Beirut last week as part of a French investigation into the explosion, which included two French citizens among its victims. He could not share the documents with them because the investigation was frozen.
The politicians Al-Bitar sought to interrogate, including Hezbollah allies, have filed dozens of legal challenges to contest Al-Bitar’s right to question them and say he overstepped his authority.
The court was waiting for new judges to be appointed to resume its work, a step the authorities did not take.
Judicial sources said that Al-Bitar resumed his work based on a legal study that challenged the basis on which the investigation was suspended.
According to judicial sources, Al-Bitar intends to interrogate 15 people during the month of February.
But legal experts and even victims’ families expect the obstacles to continue.
Nizar Saghieh of the NGO Legal Agenda said that officials may try to challenge the legality of al-Bitar’s appeal of his investigation, and that judicial authorities or security forces may refuse to implement procedural steps to press charges.
(Reporting by Muhammad Aysam and Marwa Gharib for the Arabic Bulletin – Edited by Duaa Muhammad)