Sunday, February 25, 2024

Lebanese judge accuses prime minister of Beirut port disaster

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The judge leading the Lebanese investigation into the catastrophic explosion in Beirut has accused the prime minister and three former ministers of criminal negligence, causing hundreds of deaths.

Acting Prime Minister Hassan Diab is expected to be questioned next week at the residence of the Prime Minister of the Grand Serail by Judge Fadi Sawan, who is leading the investigation. The judge will also question two former ministers of public works and transport, Ghazi Zaiter and Yussef Fenianos, and former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil.

About 200 people were killed and thousands injured in August, when a reserve of neglected chemicals in the port of Beirut bursts in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in modern history

The indictments, reported by the state-run national news agency on Thursday, are seen as a bullet in the arm for the investigation, which was opened shortly after the explosion but has been criticized for being slow.

“This is a positive development of course because before [the judge] said there was ministerial immunity, ”said Nizar Saghieh, director of The Legal Agenda, an advocacy organization. Following pressure from street protesters and legal activists, “now he has realized he can do it.” [indict ministers]”. Between 30 and 35 people have now been charged, Saghieh said.

Mr Diab’s office said in a statement that the prime minister informed the judge that Mr Diab had nothing to add to a statement he had already given at the inquest as a witness. Mr. Diab had “said all he had to say,” the statement said, accusing the judge of violating the Lebanese constitution.

His office said in a previous statement Thursday that Mr. Diab had “a clear conscience” and “clean hands” and that he had taken responsibility for the port disaster in a “transparent” manner.

Mr Diab is a former university professor who was appointed prime minister in January 2020 and resigned days after the disaster. He has remained on the interim since, as Lebanese lawmakers failed to form a new cabinet.

About 2,750 tonnes of explosive-grade ammonium nitrate were introduced into the port of the capital in 2014, by court order, fearing that the seized vessel could sink. Despite a written record from security authorities and customs who sounded the alarm, the dangerous chemicals were stored in a warehouse next to flammable materials.

In August, Lebanese President Michel Aoun publicly admitted that he had been briefed on the stockpile of chemicals. Although ammonium nitrate stayed there for six years, no other prime minister has yet been charged.

Shortly after the explosion, a government spokesperson told the Financial Times that Mr Diab’s office received a report of ammonium nitrate in the port about two weeks before the explosion. The spokesperson said that the case was then forwarded to the High Defense Council for further study.

An analysis by Goldsmiths’ research agency Forensic Architecture, published by the Egyptian journal Mada Masr, used images of smoke rising from the warehouse just before the explosion to conclude that a fire supply of firework went off, potentially triggering the huge explosion.

In September, the US Treasury sanctioned MM. Fenianos and Khalil for allegations of corruption and aid to Hezbollah, a powerful political party backed by Iran and a paramilitary organization regarded as a terrorist group by Washington.

Additional reporting by Asmaa al-Omar in Istanbul


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