Fresh Beirut blast charges coming ‘in weeks,’ say sources nine months on

Politicians have attempted to derail the probe which is yet to yield results nine months after the explosion

Fresh charges will be filed over last year's deadly explosion at Beirut's port in the coming "weeks", a judicial source close to the investigation told The National on Tuesday as Lebanon marked nine months since the explosion.

The source said the investigation will press on "to the end" despite political interference that derailed the probe earlier this year.

Nine months after the August 4 blast at Beirut port that killed at least 200 and left much of Beirut devastated, many in Lebanon lament the apparent lack of accountability.

But the source assured that suspects will be charged and called in for questioning in a matter of “weeks” or “one month,” but that the probe was proceeding with caution.

“We have to finish working on some technical points, and then we’ll be on the safe side.

"We don’t want to destroy the investigation. It happened before. We want this investigation to go to the end,” the source said.

In February, the judge appointed to investigate the blast, Fadi Sawan, was removed from the probe, following a request by two former ministers who he had indicted last December.

Mr Sawan charged caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab, former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former ministers of public works Yusef Fenianos and Ghazi Zeaiter with negligence.

They refused to attend questioning.

Mr Zeaiter and Mr Khalil wrote to the Court of Cassation claiming that Mr Sawan was neither neutral nor objective.

The 60-year-old judge was replaced by Tarek Bitar, 46, who heads Beirut’s criminal court.

The investigation has divided Lebanese politicians, especially after media reports uncovered the role of Syrian businessmen in 2013 buying the ammonium nitrate involved in the explosion.

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As time drags on, the Lebanese are losing faith that any credible investigation can be conducted.

Syria, which occupied Lebanon for 29 years until 2005, retains a strong influence in the country via local allies.

Victims have repeatedly told the media over the past nine months that they fear they may never achieve justice.

"The example that was set with Fadi Sawan's removal is not positive at all. It shows that there are very clear red lines in the investigation that judges cannot bypass," Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at non-government organisation Human Rights Watch, told The National.

“There is nothing preventing politicians from filing a similar complaint against Tarek Bitar at the Court of Cassation,” she said.

“As time drags on, the Lebanese are losing faith that any credible investigation can be conducted.”

On August 4, 2020, a large quantity of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing more than 200 people, destroying tens of thousands of homes and causing $350 million in damage, according to a World Bank estimate.

Top officials said the explosion was caused by years of unsafe storage of thousands of tonnes of chemicals.

Lebanon's politicians have since traded accusations over who should have been responsible for removing the dangerous chemicals.

The explosion, which came one year after the start of the country’s worst-ever economic crisis, amplified public anger against Lebanon’s political class, which is widely viewed as corrupt.

Mr Diab resigned a few days after the disaster. His successor, prime minister designate Saad Hariri, has yet to form a government, after months of bickering with President Michel Aoun.

The judicial source declined to tell The National whether politicians were once again among the suspects. "All will happen in good time. All suspects will come" when summoned, the source said.

After questioning, Mr Bitar is expected to issue formal indictments against the suspects and they will then be tried by an exceptional court, the Judicial Council.

The Judicial Council’s structure violates international standards because its decisions cannot be appealed against, raising fears that suspects will not receive a fair trial, Ms Majzoub said.

Mr Bitar sent 13 requests for judicial assistance to "countries with satellites over Lebanon" to provide pictures of the port, the state-run National News Agency reported on Tuesday.

In parallel, he continued hearing witnesses. Their identities were concealed for safety reasons.

Mr Bitar also recently released six of the 25 middle and low-ranking port employees detained in pre-trial custody, which has no set time limit.

Their families say it is unfair that top decision-makers evade questioning and remain free while their relatives are imprisoned.

The release of the six detainees does not mean that they are innocent, said the judicial source, but that their level of potential responsibility in the blast is minimal.

Asked whether a trial would go ahead this year, the source answered: “I hope so.”

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