Lebanon Probe Renews Push to Charge Top Officials for Port Blast

The judicial investigator probing last year’s devastating explosion at Beirut’s port is seeking to file negligence charges against several Lebanese lawmakers and top security officials, reprising a move which led to his predecessor stepping down.

Tarek Bitar said in an interview he’d asked parliament to lift the immunity of three of its members -- former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, ex-Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter and Nouhad Mashnouq, a former interior minister. The three men, he said, had been officially notified during their tenures that a vast cargo of ammonium nitrate had been unloaded at the port in 2014, and failed to take measures to reduce the risk of an explosion.

Khalil and Zeaiter denied similar charges brought last year, while the proposed case against Mashnouq is new.

The massive Aug. 4 blast killed about 200 people, injured thousands more, and damaged or destroyed 300,000 homes. The tragedy was a further body blow to an economy already reeling from Lebanon’s worst ever financial and political crisis.

Bitar also wants Interior Ministry permission to file charges against Lebanon’s Head of General Security Abbas Ibrahim; and asked the prime minister’s office to approve the pursuit of a case against Tony Saliba, who led security operations at the port. He filed charges against an ex-army chief and other former security officials.

The investigator was appointed last year after the Criminal Court of Cassation accepted arguments by Khalil and Zieater that questioned the objectivity of predecessor Fadi Sawwan, prompting the latter to resign.

Sawwan had charged outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab, Khalil and Zeaiter with negligence and dereliction of duty leading up to the explosion, but was still interrogating witnesses and hadn’t referred the case to court.

The charges against Diab were especially controversial, as former premiers accused Sawwan of targeting a position traditionally held by a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon’s power hierarchy. Supporters of the judge applauded his courage charging top officials from a governing elite rarely held accountable.

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