Lebanese judge charges caretaker PM in port blast

BEIRUT (AP) — The Lebanese prosecutor probing last summer’s port explosion in Beirut filed charges on Thursday against the caretaker Prime Minister and three former ministers, accusing them of negligence that led to the death of hundreds of people, Lebanon’s official news agency said.

The four are the most senior individuals to be indicted so far in the investigation, which is being conducted in secrecy. And though it is too early to predict whether any of the four would end up on trial, the development was significant in Lebanon, where a culture of impunity has prevailed for decades, including among the entrenched political elites.

Judge Fadi Sawwan, the prosecutor responsible for the investigation, filed the charges against Hassan Diab and former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, as well as Ghazi Zeiter and Youssef Fenianos, both former ministers of public works.

All four were charged with carelessness and negligence leading to death over the August 4 explosion at Beirut’s port, which killed over 200 people and injured thousands. The explosion was caused by the ignition of a large stockpile of explosive material that had been stored at the port for six years, with the knowledge of top security officials and politicians who did nothing about it.

Anger has been building up over the slow investigation, lack of answers and the fact that no senior officials have been indicted. About 30 other security officials and port and customs officials have been detained in the probe so far.

Rubble and debris remain around towering grain silos gutted in the massive August explosion at the Beirut port. PHOTO: AP

Since the shipment of ammonium nitrate arrived in Lebanon in late 2013, four prime ministers have been in office. It was not clear why Sawwan has singled out Diab, who was Prime Minister for less than a year among the ex-premiers who have held the post while the shipment was improperly stored at a port warehouse, a ticking bomb.

Diab received the backing of the Hezbollah group and its allies after Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in the wake of mass antigovernment protests late last year. Diab himself resigned a few days after the blast. He has continued to function in caretaker capacity while efforts to form a new government have floundered amid political disputes.

Commenting on Thursday’s development, Diab said his conscience is clear and he is “confident that his hands are clean and that he handled the Beirut port blast file in a responsible and transparent manner”.

A statement issued by his office accused Judge Sawwan of violating the constitution and bypassing parliament, adding that Diab has already provided all the information he had to Sawwan. The judge first questioned Diab over the blast in September.

“This surprising targetting goes beyond the person to the position per se, and Hassan Diab will not allow the premiership to be targetted by any party,” a statement issued by his office said.

It was not clear whether his comments meant he would not accept to be questioned again. Judge Sawwan said he would interrogate Diab and the three ministers as defendants next week.

The move by Sawwan to exercise his jurisdiction came after he sent a letter and documents to Parliament last month, informing lawmakers of serious suspicions relating to government officials. The lawmakers responded by saying that the material they received did not point to any professional wrongdoing.

“This is an important and brave decision and requires a lot of courage,” said attorney Diane Assaf. The question now is how far will the judge go, she said, adding that Sawwan could either stop after questioning them as defendants, issue a temporary travel ban or arrest warrant, or issue an indictment, meaning they would go on trial.

A conviction in a crime of negligence that causes deaths can carry a prison term of up to three years.

A lawyer representing families affected by the blast Youssef Lahoud described Sawwan’s move as “essential step toward revealing the complete truth”. He said Sawwan is charging the four based on a criminal investigation.