Former Lebanese PM Diab sues government over Beirut blast probe

Lawsuit comes a day before Hassan Diab's questioning session

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab arrives at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

Lebanon’s former prime minister, Hassan Diab, has filed a lawsuit challenging the state over his prosecution in connection with the Beirut port blast that killed over 200 people last year.

The lawsuit comes a day before the former leader's questioning session by Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator in the Beirut blast probe.

Mr Bitar has charged Mr Diab along with four other ministers of criminal negligence in connection with the case. All five have snubbed Mr Bitar’s summons, arguing he had no constitutional authority to prosecute them.

The judge had issued a subpoena for Mr Diab and arrest warrants for two of the four indicted officials, including ex-finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a member of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s bloc and the target of US sanctions.

Mr Berri and his Shiite allies, Iran-backed Hezbollah, have accused Mr Bitar of politicising the case.

Once notified of the lawsuit, Mr Bitar must pause his prosecution of Mr Diab until a ruling is issued by the Supreme Court, in line with the law.

The Supreme Court also has yet to rule on two other requests to oust Mr Bitar due to concerns over his impartiality.

Mr Diab said the judge had no authority to prosecute him, echoing arguments by Hezbollah and their allies who called for the trial of indicted officials take place before a special body comprising members of Parliament and judges.

Violence worsens political deadlock

A protest led by both parties to demand Mr Bitar’s removal ended in bloodshed last week after unidentified gunmen fired on protesters.

Hezbollah has accused the Lebanese Forces, one of the country’s largest Christian parties, of firing on demonstrators.

The party's leader, Samir Geagea, has denied the accusations, arguing that the clashes, which left seven dead, erupted when Hezbollah loyalists attacked residents and vandalised property in an area that used to separate Christian and Shiite neighbourhoods during the country’s 15-year civil war. Mr Geagea failed to appear for a hearing session on Wednesday to give his statement about the worst violence to grip the country in a decade.

The Lebanese Forces have argued that Hezbollah is using Mr Geagea's summons as a distraction from the port blast investigation, describing it as an attempt to undermine the probe.

Mr Geagea had previously said he would only appear for questioning if investigators first summon Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for a hearing.

A year after the blast, it remains unclear what triggered the explosion of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at Beirut port for more than six years amid reports tying the explosive fertilisers to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, a staunch Hezbollah ally.

The families of the victims have accused politicians of seeking to derail the probe into the explosion that destroyed large parts of the capital, displaced tens of thousands and accelerated Lebanon’s financial meltdown.

The blast forced the resignation of Mr Diab’s government, leaving Lebanon without a functioning Cabinet for more than a year.

Mr Diab’s successor, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, has yet to convene his Cabinet since the deadly clashes took place, after ministers affiliated with Hezbollah and its allies threatened to boycott the coming session if Mr Bitar is not replaced.

Updated: October 27th 2021, 4:51 PM