The Lebanese judge leading the investigation into last year’s massive explosion at Beirut’s port said he intends to pursue senior politicians and former and current security chiefs in the case, requesting permission for their prosecution, state media reports.
The move — coming two days before the 11-month anniversary of the horrific blast — was praised by families of the victims and survivors as a bold step by Judge Tarek Bitar.
Judge Bitar was named to lead the investigation after his predecessor was removed following legal challenges by two former ministers who were accused of negligence leading to the explosion.
Outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab has been charged and summoned for questioning, the National News Agency reported. A date was yet to be set.
Judge Bitar also asked the government and the interior ministry for permission to question two of Lebanon’s most prominent security chiefs — the head of General Security Directorate, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, and the head of State Security, Major General Tony Saliba.
Separately, he asked parliament to lift immunity for two legislators who were charged by his predecessor, and a former interior minister.
Charges have also been filed against former army commander General Jean Kahwaji and former head of military intelligence Brigadier General Kameel Daher, as well as two other retired intelligence generals. Judge Bitar said he will also be pursuing judges.
Victims hoping immunity of government officials will be lifted
Nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored in the port for years, exploded on August 4, killing 211 people, injuring more than 6,000 and devastating nearby neighbourhoods.
The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded and was the most destructive single incident in Lebanon’s troubled history.
William Noon, whose brother, Joe, a firefighter, was killed while trying the extinguish the massive fire that led to the port blast, said Judge Bitar was starting to deliver on his promises.
“Today I felt that there is hope and that we are going somewhere,” he told The Associated Press, adding that the charges filed were similar to those of Judge Bitar’s predecessor, an indication that those persons were apparently to blame.
However, Mr Noon said he expected interference from politicians, adding that the families planned to take to the streets if Judge Bitar is not allowed to carry on with his work.
“Judge Tarek Bitar has taken a very courageous decision,” wrote Lebanese lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh on Twitter.
“He is opening again the battle of (lifting) immunities against influential people.”
In mid-April, Judge Bitar ordered the release of six people, including security officers, who had been detained for months.
Among those released was an officer who had written a detailed warning to top officials prior to the explosion about the dangers of the material stored at the port.
Ministers say they are willing to be questioned
It was not immediately clear if Mr Diab would accept being questioned by Judge Bitar, after declining to be interrogated by the former prosecutor, Fadi Sawwan, last December.
In an interview with the AP late last year, Mr Diab, who resigned following the explosion, said he was being singled out and charged while others knew more, calling it “diabolical.”
He formally asked parliament to lift immunity of three politicians: former Finance Minster Ali Hassan Khalil, former Minister of Public Works Ghazi Zeiter and former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk.
He also asked the bar association for permission to question former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos.
The National News Agency said they will be questioned over possible intentional crimes of killing and negligence.
Mr Khalil and Mr Zeiter are members of the bloc of Lebanon’s powerful Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and along with Mr Fenianos are strong allies of the group Hezbollah.
Mr Khalil and Mr Zeiter issued a joint statement later Friday saying they heard about the request by the judge through the media, adding that they are both ready for questioning.
They said they were willing to be questioned — even before permission is issued by parliament and their immunity lifted — in order “to help in reaching the truth and specify responsibilities regarding this crime.”