Lebanon’s stalled investigation into the Beirut port explosion last August suffered another setback on Friday as lawmakers asked the lead investigator for further evidence before granting permission to prosecute high-ranking officials.
As parliament’s secretariat and members of the Justice and Administration committee met to discuss the request by Judge Tarek Bitar, news circulated of the outgoing interior minister’s decision to also deny the lead investigator permission to question the head of one of the country’s most powerful security agencies.
The news prompted the families of victims to block the main entrance to the interior ministry’s headquarters after having scuffled with security forces outside Speaker Nabih Berri’s residence in Beirut, where lawmakers met to debate the request.
Deputy Parliament Speaker Elie Ferzli said Parliament's Secretariat will meet again once the lead investigator submits the needed evidence for lawmakers to make a recommendation to the General Assembly, which will have the final say over the request.
Last week, Judge Bitar confirmed charges filed by his predecessor against outgoing prime minister Hassan Diab and asked parliament to lift immunity that shields three MPs who are also former ministers, from prosecution. All three lawmakers, including former finance ministers Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, both members of Mr Berri’s parliamentary bloc, attended Friday’s meeting at the speaker's residence.
Three days before the meeting, Interior Minister Mohamad Fehmi wrote back to the Justice Minister denying the lead investigator permission to question Major Gen Abbas Ibrahim, the head of the influential General Security apparatus, which reports to the Interior Ministry. The minister’s memo made the rounds on Friday.
The security chief issued a statement shortly after, saying he abides by the law while denying any wrongdoing in connection with the blast, which killed more than 200 people, injured thousands, caused $15 billion in property damage and left an estimated 300,000 homeless.
The interior minister’s decision drew criticism from human rights activists and legal experts who lamented the stalled investigation. Eleven months after the blast, it remains unclear what triggered the explosion of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate that were stored for six years at one of the region’s busiest ports with the knowledge of security agencies.
Who owned the explosive chemicals also remains a mystery, amid reports linking the ammonium nitrate to individuals with ties to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, an ally of the Iran-backed Lebanese armed group Hezbollah.
“While not surprising, Fehmi's decision to reject Bitar's request to prosecute Abbas Ibrahim for his role in the #Beirut Blast is disgraceful. There can be no justice for the blast as long as high-level officials remain immune from prosecution,” said Aya Majzoub, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Last month, the families of victims, backed by a number of lawmakers, petitioned the UN for an international inquiry into the explosion.
Judge Fadi Sawan was removed by the supreme court after charging Mr Diab, along with three other former ministers, of criminal negligence in the case. His removal followed a request by both Mr Hassan Khalil and Mr Zeaiter, who along with Mr Diab had snubbed the former lead investigator’s summons. All three argued Judge Sawan had no authority to question them under the constitution, which protects members of parliament and ministers from prosecution for decisions made in their line of work.
Last week, Mr Bitar summoned Mr Diab for questioning but did not disclose the date of the hearing.
Mr Sawan’s indictment of Mr Diab had fuelled tension between President Michel Aoun and prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, who called it an attack on the post of premier, a position reserved for Sunni Muslims under Lebanon's power-sharing system. The presidency, on the other hand, is reserved for a Christian.