By BASSEM MROUE
The Lebanese judge leading the investigation into last year’s massive explosion at Beirut’s port announced Friday he intends to pursue senior politicians and former and current security chiefs in the case, and requested permission for their prosecution, state media reported.
The move — two days before the 11-month anniversary of the horrific blast — was praised by families of the victims and survivors as a bold step by Bitar, whose predecessor was removed following legal challenges by two former ministers he had accused of negligence that led to the explosion.
Judge Tarek Bitar confirmed charges filed by his predecessor against outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab and summoned him for questioning, National News Agency reported. He did not set a date.
Bitar also asked the government and the interior ministry for permission to question two of Lebanon’s most prominent security chiefs — the head of General Security Directorate, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, and the head of State Security, Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba.
Separately, he asked parliament to lift immunity for two legislators who were charged by his predecessor, and a former interior minister. Bitar also filed charges against former army commander Gen. Jean Kahwaji and former head of military intelligence Brig. Gen. Kameel Daher, as well as two other retired intelligence generals, and said he will also be pursuing 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 Aug. 4, killing 211 people, injuring more than 6,000 and devastating nearby neighborhoods.
The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded and was the most destructive single incident in Lebanon’s troubled history.
William Noon, whose brother, Joe, a firefighter, was killed while extinguishing the massive fire that led to the port blast, said Bitar was starting to deliver on his promises.
“Today I felt that there is hope and that we are going somewhere,” he told The Associated Press, adding that the charges filed by Bitar were similar to those of his predecessor, an indication that those persons were apparently to blame.
Noon, however, said he expected interference from politicians, adding that the families plan to take to the streets if Bitar is not allowed to carry on with his work.
“Judge Tarek Bitar has taken a very courageous decision,” wrote Lebanese lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh on Twitter. “He is opening again the battle of (lifting) immunities against influential people.”
It was not immediately clear if Diab would accept to be questioned by Bitar, after declining to be interrogated by the former prosecutor, Fadi Sawwan, last December. In an interview with the AP late last year, Diab, who had resigned following the explosion, said he was being singled out and charged while others knew more, calling it “diabolical.”
He formally asked parliament to lift immunity of three lawmakers: former Finance Minster Ali Hassan Khalil, former Minister of Public Works Ghazi Zeiter and former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk. He also asked the bar association for permission to question former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos.
NNA said they will be questioned over possible intentional crimes of killing and negligence. Families of the victims and survivors of the blast have accused the ruling political class of corruption and negligence that led to the explosion of ammonium nitrates,
Khalil and Zeiter are members of the bloc of Lebanon’s powerful Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and along with Fenianos are strong allies of the group Hezbollah.
Khalil and Zeiter issued a joint statement later Friday saying they heard about the request by the judge through the media, adding that they are both ready for questioning. They said they are willing to be questioned — even before permission is issued by parliament and their immunity lifted — in order “to help in reaching the truth and specify responsibilities regarding this crime.”
Bitar was named to lead the investigation in February after Sawwan was removed following legal challenges by senior officials he had accused of negligence that led to the blast.
In mid-April, Bitar ordered the release of six people, including security officers, who had been detained for months. Among those released was an officer who had written a detailed warning to top officials prior to the explosion about the dangers of the material stored at the port.