Beirut blast probe sees former PM Hassan Diab charged with homicide

Hassan Diab - Reuters
Hassan Diab - Reuters

The judge investigating the Beirut blast has charged top officials including a former prime minister and the prosecutor general with homicide and other crimes, judicial sources said on Tuesday.

Judge Tarek Bitar on Monday unexpectedly resumed his investigation into the August 2020 explosion in the Lebanese capital that killed more than 200 people.

He has charged Hassan Diab, the prime minister at the time of the blast, alongside prosecutor general Ghassan Oueidat and other senior officials with probable intent to murder and other crimes. All have previously denied wrongdoing.

But the country’s prosecution service was quick to push back, rejecting the resumption of the probe that led to the indictment of Mr Oueidat, its most senior figure, and the others.

Mr Oueidat on Tuesday sent Judge Bitar an official letter stating that his investigation remained suspended, according to a copy of the correspondence seen by Reuters.

While the exact nature of the charges was not publicly known, a judicial source told AFP that Mr Oueidat oversaw an investigation in 2019 into defects at the Beirut port warehouse holding several hundred tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

That fertiliser would eventually catch fire and detonate in an enormous explosion a year later, following repeated warnings of the danger that it posed and requests for it to be removed.

The disaster raised questions of accountability at the highest levels of government, but Lebanon’s ruling elite, including the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hizbollah, have hindered the investigation, which is likely the only avenue for justice for victims of the explosion.

Judge Bitar’s probe had been halted for 13 months by legal challenges from high-ranking officials implicated in the probe, including the chief prosecutor, who accused the judge of bias. Lebanon’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, has not ruled on those challenges following the retirement of several judges, who are yet to be replaced.

Senior officials have repeatedly failed to appear for questioning, while the interior ministry has failed to execute arrest warrants issued by Judge Bitar, who has reportedly received death threats. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, has repeatedly called for him to be replaced.

Judge Bitar’s predecessor Fadi Sawan was removed from the case in February 2022 following complaints of bias by two Cabinet ministers.

Judge Sawan had charged Mr Diab and other officials with negligence over the improper storage of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the port, but Judge Bitar went further this week with homicide charges.