BEIRUT — The judge leading the investigation into the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion has filed charges against caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers for criminal negligence, the Lebanon’s official news agency reported.
Judge Fadi Sawwan brought charges against former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former Public Works ministers Ghazi Zeaiter and Youssef Fenianos Thursday in what legal experts described as a “legally significant” step that throws into question the concept of political immunity.
“This is a big day for justice,” Rizk Zgheib, a lawyer and lecturer at St. Joseph University, told L’Orient Today. “A major judge has just made jurisprudence for later on.”
Diab and the former ministers are the most senior figures to be charged in investigations into the blast, caused by nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate unsafely stored in a warehouse, that killed over 200 people, injured more than 6,500 and destroyed large swaths of Beirut.
Diab resigned his government less than a week later.
Since the devastating explosion, families of victims have been staging regular protests to demand justice and accountability. Officials had promised investigation results within days.
Kayan Tleis, head of the Committee of Families of Beirut Port Martyrs and the brother of Mohammad Tleis, who was killed in the explosion, said he viewed Sawwan’s decision as significant, “if it’s a path for justice to take its course.”
While the slowness of the investigation has often been criticized, Tleis said that what matters to the families of the victims is that it is transparent and “discovers the truth and … enforces justice on the ground.”
After Sawwan brought charges Thursday, Diab’s office quickly issued a statement in response, saying his “conscience is clear” and the charges were a “surprising targeting.”
The statement added that Sawwan’s decision had violated the Constitution and bypassed Parliament, in an apparent reference to the special court for the trial of presidents and ministers that is made up of MPs and top judges.
In his own statement, Khalil also accused Sawwan of violating the law and the Constitution, and said he had “no role in this case as finance minister,” a position that he held from 2014 till 2020.
In November, the judge sent a request to Parliament asking lawmakers to begin their own investigations into ministers’ involvement in the blast at the Supreme Council, a special body designed to try heads of state and ministers. However, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri rejected the request.
Zgheib disagreed with the assessments of Diab and Khalil, saying that Sawwan has every right to file charges against the caretaker prime minister and former ministers.
“When a minister or prime minister commits an act that is stated in criminal law, the ordinary judicial body can pursue them,” he said. “The only exception is when they have committed high treason or failed to execute their constitutional duties.”
According to Article 70 of the Constitution, when the premier or ministers commit either of these two acts, “Parliament shall have the right to impeach the prime minister and ministers.”
For Wissam Lahham, a constitutional law professor at St. Joseph University, this article is open to interpretation for two reasons. First, it does not specify that the Parliament alone has the power to make accusations against the prime minister or ministers. And second, it does not specifically say that MPs can take action against former senior politicians.
“This decision is very significant,” he said. “Judges and all of those who orbit the current political power have previously given this interpretation — that any current or former member of cabinet has absolute immunity.”
However, Sawwan may also be faced with legal opposition from another angle, as Khalil and Zeaiter enjoy immunity as sitting MPs.
The next step in the legal proceedings against Diab and the former ministers is for Sawwan to question them and decide whether to issue a formal accusatory decision, referring them to the Court of Justice to stand trial.
The prosecutor at this trial would be Ghassan Oueidat, the country’s seniormost public prosecutor.
Oueidat is also Zeaiter’s brother-in-law.
“As public prosecutor, Oueidat represents the people, but we cannot be represented by someone with such a conflict of interest,” said Nizar Saghieh, the executive director of Legal Agenda. “The least he can do is step down.”
Saghieh added that as public prosecutor, Oueidat has access to all case files and is able to attend witness statements.
The outgoing prime minister is set to be questioned at the Grand Serail on Monday, while the remaining three ministers will be questioned at the Justice Palace between Dec. 14 and 16.
However, the statement from Diab’s office suggested that he would not comply with the call for interrogation, as Diab has “said what he has to say on the matter, period.”
Diab is the highest-ranking figure to be charged so far in the case, but is not the most senior person who knew about the existence of the ammonium nitrate. Nor is he the only prime minister to have been in power since the hazardous materials were unloaded from the cargo ship Rhosus in 2014.
“The charges against Diab are apparently for negligence,” said Omar Nashabe, a specialist in criminal justice. “But there were heads of state before him who were in power when the [ammonium nitrate] was stored against international standards.”
“It is very strange to place charges only on the last person.”
Former Prime Minister Najib Mikati described the ruling as a “double standard” when President Michel Aoun, who himself admitted he knew about the ammonium nitrate before the blast, has not even faced questioning.
In the view of Lahham, while Sawwan’s decision may be legally significant, it is not “courageous on a political level” to take action against Diab.
“He is in a caretaker position and is not one of the political class,” he said. “So Sawwan is not taking a big risk in accusing him.”
However, Khalil and Zeaiter are senior figures in Berri’s Amal Movement, while Fenianos is close to Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh. Diab is an independent.
None of the three former ministers nor Diab’s office could be immediately reached for comment.
BEIRUT — The judge leading the investigation into the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion has filed charges against caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers for criminal negligence, the Lebanon’s official news agency reported.Judge Fadi Sawwan brought charges against former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former Public Works ministers Ghazi Zeaiter and Youssef Fenianos...