Beirut blast judge issues arrest warrant for former minister

Warrant for ex-finance chief Ali Hassan Khalil is the second issued by Tarek Bitar

The devastating explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut remains under investigation. AFP

The judge leading the investigation into the Beirut port blast has issued an arrest warrant for a former minister after he failed to appear for questioning, the state-run National News Agency said.

The warrant issued on Tuesday for ex-finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, who is charged with criminal negligence in connection with the explosion, is the second to be issued by judge Tarek Bitar against a senior official.

Mr Hassan Khalil and former agriculture minister Ghazi Zeiater last week asked Lebanon's supreme court to remove Mr Bitar from the case, accusing him of breaking the law. Mr Bitar was notified on Tuesday and is set to suspend the investigation pending the court's ruling, the NNA said.

The accused officials argued that Mr Bitar had no authority to prosecute them in line with the national constitution.

The supreme court will also rule over two previous requests filed by for former interior minister Nouhad Mashnouq and ex-public works minister Youssef Finianos to dismiss Mr Bitar over doubts of his impartiality.

The court ousted Mr Bitar’s predecessor Judge Fadi Sawan on similar grounds after he indicted former prime minister Hassan Diab in the case.

Mr Bitar had previously issued an arrest warrant for Mr Finianos who had snubbed his summons.

Mr Hassan Khalil and Mr Zeiater, both members of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s bloc, asked that they be tried before a special body comprising senior judges and parliamentarians but their requests were dismissed by the court of appeal, which argued it had no authority to rule on the matter.

The families of victims of the explosion, which rocked Beirut on August 4 last year, accuse politicians of stalling and seeking to block the investigation after Parliament failed to authorise the questioning of officials who face charges.

Mr Bitar has also been the target of criticism from Hezbollah. Hassan Nasrallah, the Iran-backed group's leader, on Monday called for Mr Bitar to be replaced, accusing him of bias and of politicising the case.

More than one year on from the blast, it remains unclear who owned the hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate that were stockpiled at the port for more than six years before they exploded, killing more than 216 people and destroying large parts of Lebanon's capital.

What triggered the detonation is also still under investigation.

Media reports have linked the shipment of the ammonium nitrate to businessmen close to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, a close ally of Hezbollah.

The explosion led to Mr Diab’s resignation as prime minister and plunged Lebanon into political paralysis, accelerating the country’s financial meltdown, which the World Bank described as one of the three most severe crises since the 1850s.

Since late 2019, the national currency has lost more than 90 per cent of its value against the US dollar, while the majority of the population is now below the poverty line.

Updated: October 12, 2021, 11:32 AM