Lebanon top prosecutor, judges charged over Beirut blast

Published : 24 Jan 2023 08:48 PM

The Lebanese judge probing the devastating Beirut port blast has charged Prosecutor General Ghassan Oueidat and three judges, a first in the country's history, a judicial official told AFP on Tuesday. 

Judge Tarek Bitar decided Monday to resume his probe into the deadly August  2020 mega-explosion despite strong political pressure that had led to a  suspension of his work for more than a year.  On Tuesday, he charged eight more figures, including Lebanon's top prosecutor  Oueidat and the three judges, with "homicide, arson and sabotage", said the  judicial official who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity. One of history's biggest non-nuclear explosions destroyed most of Beirut port  and surrounding areas on August 4, 2020, killing more than 215 people and  injuring over 6,500.

The blast was caused by a fire in a warehouse where a vast stockpile of the  industrial chemical ammonium nitrate had been haphazardly stored for years,  authorities said.

According to the judicial official, Oueidat had in 2019 overseen a security  services investigation into cracks in the warehouse where the ammonium  nitrate was stored.

In total, 13 people are being prosecuted, including five officials whom Bitar  indicted earlier, among them former prime minister Hassan Diab and former  ministers.

Relatives of the dead have been holding monthly vigils ever since the  disaster, seeking justice and accountability. Many families have placed their hopes in Bitar, who has however faced legal  challenges, delays and strong resistance from the powerful Shiite Muslim  movement Hezbollah and its allies who accuse him of political bias.

Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally Amal called for demonstrations to demand  his dismissal in October 2021, when a gun battle broke out at a Beirut rally  and seven people were killed.

Reopening the case Monday after a 13-month suspension, Bitar charged an  initial eight suspects, including General Security head Abbas Ibrahim and  State Security agency chief Tony Saliba, and released five others.

In Lebanon, state institutions have been reluctant to cooperate with the  domestic probe, which began the same month as the explosion.

In February 2021, Bitar's predecessor as lead judge was removed from the case  after he had charged high-level politicians. The interior ministry has also failed to execute arrest warrants issued by  Bitar, further undermining his quest for accountability.