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Former Lebanon PM Diab charged with homicide in 2020 port explosion

The judge probing the 2020 Beirut blast has charged Lebanon’s top public prosecutor, the then-prime minister and other senior current and former officials in connection with the devastating explosion, judicial sources said and court summonses show.

Judge Tarek Bitar unexpectedly resumed an inquiry on Monday after it was paralyzed for more than a year by political resistance and legal complaints filed by top officials he was seeking to question.

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

Bitar has charged ex-prime minister Hassan Diab and former ministers with homicide with probable intent, according to court summonses seen by Reuters on Tuesday.

He also charged Prosecutor General Ghassan Oweidat, the head of Lebanon’s domestic intelligence agency Major General Abbas Ibrahim, former army commander Jean Kahwaji and other current and former security and judicial officials, court sources said.

A man in a suit is seen holding a podium in an outdoor setting.
Hassan Diab speaks at the government palace in Beirut, while serving as caretaker prime minister, on March 6, 2021. Diab is among the current and former officials now charged in connection with the blast. (Dalati Nohra/Reuters)

It was not immediately clear what they had been charged with, but one judicial source said Bitar had found Oweidat had not acted responsibly with regard to the ammonium nitrate.

To many Lebanese, the disaster symbolized the wider corruption and mismanagement of a ruling elite that had also steered Lebanon into a devastating financial collapse.

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At the time, leaders promised the truth within days. But more than two years later, nobody has been held to account in a country where the judiciary is prone to political influence, with many judicial appointments determined by politicians.

“This is really bold and courageous … There is no support among the political figures. You feel like he’s on a solo mission,” Tania Daou-Alam, who lost her husband in the blast, said of the judge. Bitar’s determination, she added, made him something of a “modern-day hero.”

U.S. denies Hezbollah claim

Oweidat on Tuesday sent Bitar an official letter saying that Bitar’s probe remained suspended and that no official decision had been taken on whether he could continue investigating, according to a copy of the correspondence seen by Reuters.

Differing opinions within the judiciary over whether Bitar was allowed to resume his probe mean that some of his decisions could go unimplemented, analysts say.

Bitar’s previous 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.

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Tania Daou-Alam, a lawyer whose husband was killed in the 2020 Beirut port blast, said she was surprised by the resumption of an inquiry into the explosion and expressed hope.

The group has campaigned against Bitar as he sought to question its allies, and it also accused Washington of meddling in the probe. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly called for Bitar to be replaced in 2021.

The U.S. ambassador has denied the accusation. The embassy on Tuesday tweeted that the United States “support and urge Lebanese authorities to complete a swift and transparent investigation” into the blast.

The investigation was paralyzed in early 2022 by the retirement of judges from a court that must rule on several such complaints against 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.

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 at the time because the investigation was frozen.

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

A man in a short-sleeved checked shirt looks out into the distance across a field of debris near the shoreline.
A man stands next to graffiti at the damaged port area in the aftermath of the explosion, on Aug. 11, 2020. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

Previous Diab charge didn’t stick

Diab, an academic, became prime minister in January 2020 and resigned less than a week after the blast.

Bitar’s predecessor swiftly charged him and several former officials with negligence over the chemicals, but that judge was removed in 2021 following political interference in the file.

Diab said in a statement in 2020 that he was confident his hands were clean and that he had dealt transparently with the file of the Beirut port explosion.

A bearded man in a group of several people holds up a sign in an outdoor setting.
A supporter of Hezbollah carries a picture of Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead explosion investigator, in Beirut on Oct. 14, 2021. While Hezbollah has panned the investigation, some family members of victims reacted positively to the sudden turn in the probe this week. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Bitar, 49, has scheduled questioning with 15 people throughout the month of February, according to judicial sources.

Bitar, a devout Catholic from Akkar region of the north, has charged officials from across the sectarian spectrum including Shias, Sunnis and Christians.

William Noun, who lost his brother in the blast, said of Bitar’s move: “This is very much a judicial uprising.”

But legal experts and even relatives of victims expect him to encounter continued pushback.

Nizar Saghieh of watchdog NGO Legal Agenda said officials may try to dispute the legitimacy of Bitar’s resumption, while the judiciary or security forces could refuse to carry out procedural steps for the charges to be served.

Reuters could not immediately reach Diab or Oweidat for comment. Ibrahim declined to comment on reports he had been charged when contacted by Reuters on Monday. Kahwaji declined to comment. All those previously charged by Bitar have denied wrongdoing.

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