Charges in Beirut port blast stir controversy in Lebanon

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Hassan Diab

FILE – In this Jan. 21, 2020 file photo, outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab, speaks during a press conference after his government was announced, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon. On Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, the Lebanese prosecutor probing this summer’s port explosion in Beirut filed charges against Diab, and three former ministers, Lebanon’s official news agency said. All four were charged with negligence leading to deaths over the Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut port, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group on Friday criticized charges filed by a prosecutor against the caretaker prime minister and three former ministers over the massive explosion in Beirut’s port, describing it as “political targeting.”

The group called on investigating judge Fadi Sawwan to reconsider his decision, saying it lacked legal and constitutional basis and that the four were being selectively charged.

Similar criticism was voiced by Lebanon’s grand mufti, the top cleric for Sunni Muslims, and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, who said the charges against caretaker Premier Hassan Diab targeted the prime ministry as a position and were a violation of the constitution. The prime minister in Lebanon must be a Sunni Muslim, according to the country’s sectarian-based power-sharing system.

It was not clear what impact the criticism could have on Sawwan. In a surprise move, he filed charges against Diab and three former ministers on Thursday, accusing them of negligence that led to the death of hundreds of people.

The four are the most senior officials to be charged in the investigation and are set to be questioned as defendants next week by Sawwan.

Diab, who is supported by Hezbollah and its political allies, resigned in the wake of the Aug. 4 explosion and remains in his post in a caretaker capacity, as Lebanese officials have failed to agree on a new Cabinet.

The Aug. 4 explosion was caused by the ignition of a large stockpile of explosive material that had been stored at the port for six years, with the knowledge of top security officials and politicians who did nothing about it. It killed more than 200 people and wounded thousands, devastating large parts of the capital of Beirut.

Thursday’s decision to charge senior officials — including one in office — was significant in Lebanon, where a culture of impunity has prevailed for decades, including among the entrenched political elites.

According to Lebanon’s constitution, a separate council made up of judges and politicians is entrusted with trying ministers and presidents for crimes of high treason, dereliction of duties, and breach of the constitution.

The move by Sawwan to exercise his jurisdiction to accuse government officials came after he sent a letter and documents to parliament last month, informing lawmakers of serious suspicions relating to government officials and asking them to investigate. The lawmakers responded by saying that the material they received did not point to any professional wrongdoing.

Lawyer Youssef Lahoud, who represents the Bar Association in the investigation, said the parliament’s response does not prevent Sawan from exercising his right to charge government officials in the port explosion. The explosion is not viewed as a political crime, which would require the role of parliament, Lahoud said.

The three former ministers charged along with Diab are allies of Hezbollah. They are former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, as well as Ghazi Zeiter and Youssef Fenianos, both former ministers of public works.

“We are keen that all decisions taken by the investigating judge stay clear of politics and intent; be constitutional and not subject to interpretation or judgement; and that the indictment be based on legal and reasonable basis, which is what we did not find in the latest measures,” Hezbollah said in a statement.

“Therefore we absolutely reject the absence of unified criteria which led to what we consider political targeting affecting some people and ignoring others unfairly,” it added.

A statement from Diab’s office on Thursday accused Sawwan of violating the constitution and bypassing parliament. Although a political opponent, Hariri visited Diab on Friday in a gesture of solidarity.

Lebanon’s grand mufti and top cleric for Sunni Muslims, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, also said the charges targeting the prime minister’s position is political and, unacceptable and a violation of the constitution.

Zeiter, the former minister of public works and currently a lawmaker, said in a press conference on Friday that the judge deviated from constitutional rules and abused power.

The judge committed a “catastrophe” on the judicial scale, Zeiter said, adding that he and the others charged would not be silenced by “any fake accusations.”

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Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed reporting.

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