Lebanon blast investigator charges public prosecutor: Justice official

The explosion on August 4, 2020, was caused by hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT - The judge investigating the 2020 Beirut port explosion has charged Lebanon’s top public prosecutor and three other judges in connection with the catastrophic blast, two judicial sources said on Tuesday.

Judge Tarek Bitar, who has unexpectedly resumed an inquiry that has been paralysed by high-level political resistance, has scheduled questioning with Prosecutor General Ghassan Oweidat for February, the sources said, without specifying the charges.

Reuters could not immediately reach Oweidat for comment.

Justice Bitar’s efforts to interrogate top officials over the explosion that killed 220 people and shattered parts of Beirut have been hindered by factions including the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Justice Bitar has also charged Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s domestic intelligence agency, and Major General Tony Saliba, head of another security body, in connection with the blast, as well as former army commander Jean Kahwaji, judicial officials have said, without specifying the charges.

Judicial sources said interrogations have been scheduled for February for 15 people.

These include the top security officials, Oweidat, two former ministers, and Hassan Diab, who was the prime minister at the time of the blast.

Ibrahim declined to comment on reports he had been charged when contacted by Reuters on Monday.

Kahwaji declined to comment. Saliba could not immediately be reached for comment.

All those previously charged by Justice Bitar have denied wrongdoing.

The explosion on August 4, 2020, was caused by hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port in poor conditions since it was unloaded in 2013.

So far, no senior official has been held to account.

Justice Bitar met French judges visiting Beirut last week as part of a French investigation into the explosion, whose victims included two French nationals. He was unable to share documents with them because the investigation was frozen.

Politicians that Justice Bitar had sought to question, including Hezbollah allies, made dozens of legal challenges disputing his right to interrogate them and said he had overstepped his powers.

The investigation was paralysed in early 2022 by the retirement of judges from a court that must rule on several such complaints against Justice Bitar before he can continue.

The court has been awaiting the appointment of new judges to resume its work, a step authorities have not taken.

Justice Bitar resumed work on the basis of a legal interpretation challenging the reasons for its suspension, the judicial sources said.

Hezbollah has campaigned against Justice Bitar as he sought to question its allies and accused Washington of meddling in the probe.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah called for him to be replaced. REUTERS

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