Lebanon’s Parliament will have the final word on whether an investigation into the Beirut port disaster last summer can lead to the prosecution of senior officials, legal experts told The National.
More than 200 people were killed and almost 8,000 injured when a cargo of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded in a warehouse in the Port of Beirut on August 4 last year.
Thousands of buildings in the Lebanese capital suffered severe structural damage.
Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator in the case, had asked Parliament for permission to question and prosecute three MPs, who are also former ministers, in connection with the case. But his request was met with resistance from politicians who argued last week that Mr Bitar must present further evidence before his request to lift immunity was referred to the general assembly for a vote.
After debating Mr Bitar’s request, Deputy Speaker Elie Ferzli said members of Parliament’s secretariat and the Justice and Administration committee would reconvene once politicians received the necessary documents to decide on the issue.
Legal experts, however, say the request for additional evidence, with which Mr Bitar has refused to comply, is illegal.
“The request for further evidence is in violation of the law which protects the confidentiality and secrecy of investigations,” Mr Antoine Sfeir, a lawyer and expert in constitutional law told The National.
Parliamentary immunity, he said, shields lawmakers from prosecution in their capacity as members of the legislature but not as former ministers.
“Asking for further evidence before allowing the investigation to proceed practically turns lawmakers into an investigative body, in violation of the constitution in this case.”
Last week, Mr Bitar confirmed charges filed by his predecessor against outgoing prime minister Hassan Diab and asked Parliament to lift immunity on three politicians, the former finance ministers Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter and ex-interior minister Nouhad Mashnouq.
Lawyer Nizar Saghieh, founder of the watchdog group Legal Agenda, criticised the politicians’ request for additional evidence, arguing that article 91 of the law required only Mr Bitar to provide a “summary of the evidence.”
Port investigation stumbles
Mr Bitar replaced Judge Fadi Sawan who was removed by the supreme court after charging Mr Diab, along with Mr Hassan Khalil and Mr Zeaiter, both members of Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc, of criminal negligence in the case.
All three had argued that Mr Sawan had no authority to question them under the constitution.
Mr Bitar was also denied permission by outgoing Interior Minister Mohamad Fehmi to question Maj Gen Abbas Ibrahim, the head of General Security, one of the country’s most powerful security agencies.
The decision prompted the families of victims to lament the lack of progress in the investigation 11 months after the explosion of ammonium nitrate that was stored at Beirut port with the knowledge of security agencies.
Almost a year after the blast, it remains unclear what triggered the explosion or who owned the explosive chemicals that displaced thousands of people and caused billions of dollars in damage to property across the capital.
Mr Sfeir said the country’s chief prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oueidat has less than two weeks to decide on whether to grant Mr Bitar permission to question the General Security chief.
“If the state prosecutor doesn’t decide on the issue by the time the deadline expires, Judge Bitar will be free to proceed with the questioning of the head of General Security,” Mr Sfeir said.
The security chief last week said he abides by the law and denies any wrongdoing in connection with the blast.
The explosion, which forced Mr Diab to step down, has compounded Lebanon’s worst economic and financial crisis in decades, leaving the country without a fully functioning Cabinet.
The stalled investigation prompted the families of victims to petition the UN for an international probe against the backdrop of rising political tensions.
Mr Diab’s indictment last year deepened the rift between President Michel Aoun, the Christian head of state, and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, who remain at loggerheads over cabinet formation and a national reform agenda.
Mr Hariri called Mr Diab’s indictment an attack on the post of prime minister, a position reserved for Sunni Muslims under Lebanon's power-sharing system.