Beirut Bar Association lifts immunity from members charged in blast probe

Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil are still protected from prosecution because they are sitting legislators

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil speaks during a meeting in Beirut, Lebanon June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

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The Beirut Bar Association lifted the immunity of two lawyers and prominent politicians on Wednesday so they can be prosecuted in the Beirut blast investigation.

But former ministers Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil are still immune to prosecution because they are sitting legislators.

Their case is an example of how difficult it is for the judiciary to prosecute high-ranking officials in Lebanon, a country renowned for impunity.

“When a lawyer becomes a minister, his immunity is suspended because he cannot pursue both professions at the same time,” said Melhem Khalaf, who leads the association.

“We consider that immunity is lifted de facto in this case because the investigation has to do with their work as ministers.”

Last August a huge blast rocked Beirut killing more than 214 people, wounding 6,500 and destroying large parts of the city after flammable material stored at the port for years caught fire and exploded.

Nearly one year on, the investigation has yet to produce any results after the first judge leading it was replaced in February.

In Lebanon, lawyers enjoy immunity due to the nature of their profession. The bar association rules on requests to prosecute its members.

“Lawyers must be able to speak out against injustice freely. That is what their immunity is for,” Mr Khalaf said.

Judge Tarek Bitar requested that Parliament lift the immunity of legislators who are under investigation for the Beirut explosion.

Those include parliamentarians and former ministers Nohad Machnouk, Mr Hassan Khalil and Mr Zeaiter.

The investigative judge also asked to interrogate caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab and former minister Yousef Fenianos, as well as top security and military officials.

Mr Fenianos and Mr Hassan Khalil faced US sanctions last year for their ties to the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Legislators are granted immunity when they are in session. Parliament has been in session for nearly a year because of a stalled government formation process, constitutional law expert Wissam Lahham told The National.

“When Parliament is out of session there is no need to request stripping immunity. They can be prosecuted. But they have been in session for months,” Mr Lahham said.

Lebanon’s entrenched political class has fought off attempts to interrogate its members about the explosion in the past year.

Judge Fadi Sawwan, Mr Bitar’s predecessor, was removed from his position in February after Mr Hassan Khalil and Mr Zeaiter, the two former ministers he had charged, requested his dismissal.

Updated: August 2nd 2021, 9:01 AM