The judge leading the investigation into the Beirut port explosion issued an arrest warrant for a former minister after he failed to turn up for questioning on Thursday, Lebanon’s National News Agency reported.
Tarek Bitar on Monday subpoenaed former minister of public works Youssef Fenianos for questioning, and although two lawyers turned up on his behalf, a warrant for his arrest was issued in his absence.
Mr Fenianos has publicly said he would refuse to co-operate with the investigation, which he claims has been politicised. He also failed to show up for questioning when summoned in February, claiming he had not been informed according to the “principle of criminal procedures”.
An investigation published by Human Rights Watch in August found that Mr Fenianos had been aware that the ammonium nitrate was being stored in Beirut's port, and claimed that he continued “to mischaracterise the threat posed by the ammonium nitrate”.
The warrant means that Mr Fenianos will now be unable to leave the country, The National understands. Mr Fenianos was not immediately available for comment.
Aya Majzoub, Lebanon Researcher for Human Rights Watch said the arrest warrant was an important move against a culture of impunity.
"The arrest warrant that Judge Bitar issued against former public works minister Youssef Fenianos is a direct challenge to the culture of impunity prevailing among Lebanese politicians. It is a clear sign that there are consequences to their repeated undermining and obstruction of the judicial process," she told The National.
"Fenianos’ arrest warrant does not bode well for former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who left the country just days before his scheduled interrogation as a suspect in the case."
Sleiman Frangieh, a former MP and close ally, tweeted his support for Mr Fenianos.
“With the news of the arrest warrant against Minister Youssef Fenianos, we confirm that we stand by him in his journey to defend himself, rightly and as per the law," he wrote.
On Tuesday, former prime minister Hassan Diab announced that he had left Lebanon for a four-week trip to the United States, despite being scheduled to appear before Mr Bitar for questioning on Monday – his trip means he too will miss questioning by the investigation.
The former Lebanese Army commander Jean Kahwaji appeared for questioning on Monday to acrimonious protests by the families of victims of the blast. He was head of the army in 2013 when about 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which would later explode, entered the port.
Mr Diab’s departure, which he claimed was to visit his sons in the US, came barely a week after he left office as caretaker prime minister. It prompted fury among the families of those killed in the blast, who claimed he was running away from justice.
Mr Fenianos and Mr Diab were among four senior officials charged with negligence during the investigation in December by Fadi Sawan, the judge formally heading up the investigation. The other two were former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, and Ghazi Zeiter, who was minister of public works and transport at the time of the blast.
The explosion, on August 4, 2020, killed more than 200 people, although more than 13 months later, nobody has been held to account.