Lebanon’s lead investigator into the catastrophic Beirut port explosion charged outgoing premier Hassan Diab and three ex-ministers with negligence on Thursday, a judicial source said.
They are the first politicians to be indicted over the devastating August 4 blast that killed more than 200 people, disfigured the heart of the capital and stoked a wave of public anger against Lebanon’s ruling elite.
The four were charged with “negligence and causing death to hundreds and injuries to thousands more” in the first such official indictment against a prime minister in office in Lebanese history, the judicial source said.
After the blast, it emerged top security officials and politicians had known for years about hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser stored haphazardly at the Beirut port but had failed to take precautionary measures.
The decision by judge Fadi Sawan came after the investigation confirmed the suspects had received “several written notices warning them against postponing the disposal of ammonium nitrate fertiliser,” the source said.
“They also did not take the necessary measures to avoid the devastating explosion and its enormous damage,” added the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak on the issue.
Diab, who resigned in the wake of the August 4 explosion, already testified before Sawan in September.
His office on Thursday said the outgoing premier’s conscience was clear.
“He is confident that his hands are clean and that he has handled the Beirut Port blast file in a responsible and transparent manner,” it said in a statement.
– Judge to question suspects –
The other senior officials charged are former finance minister Ali Hasan Khalil and the ex-ministers of public works Yusef Fenianos and Ghazi Zaiter.
The United States in September slapped sanctions on Khalil and Fenianos for alleged corruption and support of the powerful Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement.
In a letter to parliament late last month, judge Sawan asked lawmakers to investigate several outgoing and former ministers, including Khalil, Fenianos and Zaiter, over the blast.
The letter came after Sawan’s investigations raised “certain suspicions about the responsibility of those ministers and their failure towards addressing the presence of the ammonium nitrate at the port”.
The judicial source Thursday said parliament had not responded to Sawan’s request, prompting him to press charges.
Sawan will begin questioning the suspects from Monday, the source said.
Diab on Thursday told Sawan he respected the rule of law, but accused the judge of bypassing parliament and said he had already “provided all the information he had regarding this file”.
The investigation has so far triggered the arrest of 25 people, including top port and customs officials.
Lebanese officials have rejected an international probe, despite demands both at home and abroad for an impartial investigation.
Experts from France and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation took part in the preliminary investigation.
– Decades of negligence –
Public anger has simmered over the pace of the investigation, which had until Thursday spared top political officials widely accused for the country’s worst peace-time disaster.
Lebanese on social media cautiously welcomed the charges, but urged more to be done.
“All this could remain a mere attempt to calm public opinion unless it comes with serious investigations into the responsibility of these and other ministers who have not yet been summoned,” Lebanese rights group Legal Agenda wrote on Twitter.
Many blame the blast on decades of negligence and corruption by the country’s ruling elite, who include former warlords from the 1975-1990 civil war.
On July 20, Diab and President Michel Aoun had both received a report from the State Security agency warning of the danger posed by the highly unstable material at the port.
After the explosion, the agency confirmed it had alerted authorities in a detailed report quoting a chemical expert who had visited the warehouse.
If ignited, the ammonium nitrate would cause a huge explosion that would be especially destructive to the port, warned the report seen by AFP.
The Beirut Bar Association has handed the public prosecutor hundreds of criminal complaints from victims of the explosion.
Lebanon is mired in its worst economic crisis in decades, but its divided political class has for months failed to agree on a new cabinet to implement desperately needed reforms.
Saad Hariri, who stepped down as premier last year following mass anti-government protests, is set to make a comeback after he was tasked to form a government in October.