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Beirut port explosion

Port investigator Tarek Bitar has asked for permission to prosecute top officials

Port investigator Tarek Bitar has asked for permission to prosecute top officials

Nearly 11 months after the devastating blast at Beirut’s port, the judiciary’s troubled and slow-moving investigation has yet to hold anyone accountable. (Credit: João Sousa/L’Orient Today)

BEIRUT — Port explosion investigator Tarek Bitar on Friday requested permission to prosecute a raft of current and former Lebanese officials in a move reminiscent of the actions that got his predecessor fired.

Two days before the 11-month anniversary of the devastating blast, Bitar asked Parliament to lift immunity from several top officials. If his request is granted, this would allow him to prosecute these officials for “probable intent of murder” and criminal negligence, a judicial source told L'Orient Today.

Bitar also called in caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab for questioning as a defendant in the case; however, a date for the session has yet to be announced.

Bitar sent a letter to Parliament requesting the removal of parliamentary immunity from MP and former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, MP and former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter and MP and former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk. Article 40 of Lebanon’s constitution states that members of the legislature may not be prosecuted or arrested for any criminal offense without Parliament’s permission, unless they are caught in the act.

Later Friday, Khalil and Zeaiter — both Amal Movement MPs — said they were prepared to appear before the judge for questioning, even before Parliament made a decision on their immunity privileges, and “to take the necessary action to assist in the investigation,” the National News Agency reported.

The statement marks a dramatic shift from earlier this year, when Bitar’s predecessor Judge Fadi Sawwan was abruptly removed from the case in February after he charged Khalil and Zeaiter with criminal negligence, which led the sitting MPs and former ministers to request that the case be transferred to a new judge.

Sawwan had also charged Diab and former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos with criminal negligence.

The port explosion investigator has also gone after top security and military officials. Bitar requested permission from caretaker Interior Minister Mohamed Fehmi to prosecute General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim. He also requested permission from Diab to prosecute State Security chief Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba. 

The judge also charged former army commander Gen. Jean Kahwaji, as well as former head of military intelligence Brig. Gen. Kameel Daher.

Fehmi later Friday evening told local media outlets that he would grant Bitar permission to prosecute Ibrahim.

As both Khalil and Zeaiter are lawyers, the judge also asked the Beirut Bar Association’s permission to prosecute them. He also asked for permission from the Tripoli Bar Association to prosecute Fenianos, who is also a lawyer.

Diab and the former ministers were the most senior figures to be charged in investigations into the blast, which occurred when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate carelessly stored in a port warehouse detonated. The explosion killed more than 200 people and injured thousands of others.

Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer and the head of Beirut-based research and advocacy organization Legal Agenda, told L’Orient Today that it is difficult to predict whether Parliament will agree to lift the immunities, but that the investigation under Bitar is headed in the right direction.

“I think there is going to be a lot of controversy about lifting immunity,” Saghieh said, adding that “the first hindrance to accountability is immunity in Lebanon.”

On the other hand, Diab, who on several occasions declined to be questioned by Sawwan, does not have the luxury of parliamentary immunity as he is not an MP.

“If Diab doesn't show up, he [Bitar] can take any decision he wants. He can arrest him,” Saghieh said.

The state-lead investigation into the catastrophic blast has been widely condemned by victims, lawyers and human rights organizations for its lack of transparency and delays due to interference by Lebanese politicians.

“As Legal Agenda we ask [that] immunities be lifted without any delay in order to enable the judge to do his work, because as long as these immunities are not lifted, justice may not be served,” Saghieh said.

Earlier Friday, Bitar had issued a decision to release two detainees, General Security Maj. Daoud Fayad and engineer Nayla al-Hage, the external technical inspector of the repair work in warehouse 12.


BEIRUT — Port explosion investigator Tarek Bitar on Friday requested permission to prosecute a raft of current and former Lebanese officials in a move reminiscent of the actions that got his predecessor fired.Two days before the 11-month anniversary of the devastating blast, Bitar asked Parliament to lift immunity from several top officials. If his request is granted, this would allow him to...