BEIRUT — Lebanon’s parliamentarians have set a 15-day timeline to reach a decision on whether or not to lift immunity from three sitting MPs, a media spokesperson at Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Ain al-Tineh residence told L'Orient Today following a meeting Friday of the Parliament Secretariat and Parliament’s Administration and Justice Committee.
The time frame was agreed a week after the judge investigating the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion requested that the protection be removed to allow him to prosecute the three for criminal negligence in connection with the blast.
During the coming fortnight, Parliament’s Secretariat and the Administration and Justice Committee will review Bitar’s request to lift 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.
Khalil and Zeaiter both sit on the Administration and Justice Committee.
Following the closed-door meeting on Friday to discuss the investigating judge’s request, Deputy Parliament Speaker Elie Ferzli requested further information from Judge Tarek Bitar on the evidence against the accused MPs.
“We are asking for ... all the necessary proof to move forward and raise this to the authorities and eventually lift immunity,” Ferzli said from Ain al-Tineh.
Meanwhile, as he departed Ain al-Tineh, Machnouk — who attended the meeting as one of the accused MPs — said he is “ready to give all the input needed” for the Beirut blast investigation. Khalil and Zeaiter could not be reached for comment.
While the committee members met Friday, dozens of protesters and families of victims gathered outside Ain al-Tineh, demanding justice and accountability for the blast, which destroyed large swathes of the capital, killed over 200 people and wounded thousands.
As the meeting progressed, security forces scuffled with protesters and the families of victims gathered. Videos circulating on social media showed the crowd attempting to push forward through the barrier surrounding the residence while security forces pushed back, leading some protesters to fall over.
“Even if they lift immunity on these MPs, nothing will bring my husband back to me, but I want justice, and I want all those in charge to be punished,” Ola, wife of Abdel Halim El Ali Salem who died in the blast, told L’Orient Today, as she stood among the families outside the meeting.
Khalil and Zeaiter — both Amal movement MPs — were previously charged with criminal negligence and summoned for questioning by Bitar’s predecessor Judge Fadi Sawwan, who was removed from the probe in February when the two MPs challenged the summons and asked the Court of Cassation to replace him.
Following Bitar’s request, Khalil and Zeaiter in a statement last week said they were ready to appear before the judge for questioning even before Parliament reached a definitive decision on their immunity, the National News Agency reported.
Parliamentary immunity is granted to MPs under Article 40 of Lebanon’s constitution, which stipulates that the legislature’s officials cannot be arrested or prosecuted for any criminal offense without Parliament’s permission, unless they are caught in the act.
The domestic investigation into the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion — the result of the detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate negligently stored by authorities in a warehouse — has been widely criticized by lawyers and human rights organizations for its lack of transparency and delays due to politicians’ interference.
The port explosion investigator has also sought permission to prosecute top security officials, including General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim. However, caretaker Interior Minister Mohamed Fehmi today rejected Bitar’s request to question Ibrahim despite telling local media last week that he would allow it.
Protesters and families of victims of the explosion responded to news of Fehmi’s rejection by blocking the road in front of the Interior Ministry in Sanayeh on Friday evening, chanting “down with Mohamed Fehmi.”
Bitar also called in caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab for questioning as a defendant in the case; however, it remains unclear when this interrogation will take place.