BEIRUT (AP) – Lebanese judge investigating last year’s massive explosion in Beirut port announced on Friday that he intends to prosecute senior politicians and former and current leaders Security in the matter, and asked for permission to prosecute them, state media reported.
The move, two days before the 11th anniversary of the horrific explosion, was hailed by the families of the victims and survivors as a bold step by Bitar, whose predecessor has been deleted following legal challenges from two former ministers whom he accused of negligence leading to the explosion.
Judge Tarek Bitar confirmed the accusations made by his predecessor against outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab and summoned him for questioning, the national news agency reported. He hasn’t set a date.
Bitar also asked the government and the Interior Ministry for permission to interrogate two of Lebanon’s most prominent security chiefs – the head of the General Security Directorate, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, and the Head of State Security, Major General Tony Saliba.
In addition, he asked Parliament to lift the immunity of two lawmakers indicted by his predecessor and a former Minister of the Interior. Bitar also lodged a complaint against the former army commander, General Jean Kahwaji and the former head of military intelligence, the brigadier. Gen. Kameel Daher, along with two other retired intelligence generals, said he would also prosecute the judges.
Nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored in the port for years, exploded on August 4, killing 211 people, injuring more than 6,000 and devastating neighborhoods neighbors.
The explosion was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded and was the most destructive incident in the troubled history of Lebanon.
William Noon, whose brother, Joe, a firefighter, was killed while putting out the huge blaze that led to the explosion at the port, said Bitar was starting to keep his promises.
“Today I felt that there was hope and that we were going somewhere,” he told The Associated Press, adding that the accusations made by Bitar were similar to those of its predecessor, an indication that these people were apparently to blame.
Noon, however, said he expected interference from politicians, adding that families plan to take to the streets if Bitar is not allowed to continue his work.
“Judge Tarek Bitar has made a very courageous decision,” Lebanese lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh wrote on Twitter. “It is reopening the battle for (lifting) immunities against influential people.”
It was not immediately clear whether Diab would agree to be questioned by Bitar, after refusing to be questioned by former prosecutor Fadi Sawwan last December. In an interview with the AP Late last year, Diab, who resigned following the blast, said he was being singled out and charged when others knew more, calling him “evil”.
He officially asked Parliament to lift the immunity of three lawmakers: former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, former public works minister Ghazi Zeiter and former interior minister Nouhad Machnouk. He also asked the bar for permission to question former Minister of Public Works Youssef Fenianos.
ANI said they would be questioned about possible intentional crimes of murder and neglect. The families of the victims and survivors of the explosion accused the ruling political class of corruption and negligence which led to the explosion of ammonium nitrates,
Khalil and Zeiter are members of the bloc of the powerful Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri, and along with the Fenianos are strong allies of the Hezbollah group.
Khalil and Zeiter released a joint statement later on Friday, saying they heard about the judge’s request through the media, adding that they were both ready for questioning. They said they were prepared to be questioned – even before permission was granted by Parliament and their immunity was lifted – in order to “help uncover the truth and clarify responsibility for this crime” .
Bitar was appointed to lead the investigation in February after Sawwan was removed from his post following court challenges from senior officials he accused of negligence that led to the explosion.
In mid-April, Bitar ordered the release of six people, including security guards, who had been detained for months. Among those released was an officer who had written a detailed warning to senior officials before the explosion about the dangers of equipment stored in the port.