Lebanon’s blast investigation suspended amid rising political tension

Investigating judge awaits Supreme Court decision after indicted politicians seek transfer of case

-- AFP PICTURES OF THE YEAR 2020 --

A view shows the aftermath of yesterday's blast at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut, on August 5, 2020. Rescuers worked through the night after two enormous explosions ripped through Beirut's port, killing at least 78 people and injuring thousands, as they wrecked buildings across the Lebanese capital. - 
 / AFP / Anwar AMRO

Lebanon’s investigation into the deadly blast in the capital Beirut in August came to a standstill on Thursday after the judge leading the inquiry suspended it for 10 days.

Judge Fadi Sawan is awaiting a ruling by the Supreme Court in Beirut after two of the four officials he indicted requested that the case be transferred to another judge.

The request was made by member of parliament and former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a close aide to parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, and former public works minister Ghazi Zeaiter, also a member of Mr Berri’s parliamentary bloc.

The two, along with caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and former minister of public works Youssef Fenianos, were charged with criminal negligence in connection with the explosion at Beirut port that killed more than 200 people, injured 6,000 and caused damage estimated at more than $15 billion.

The investigation into the August 4 detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, stored at the port for more than six years, has fuelled tension between President Michel Aoun and his political rivals, Mr Berri and prime minister-designate Saad Hariri.

Mr Hariri called Mr Diab's indictment an “attack” on the post of prime minister, a position reserved for Sunnis under Lebanon's power-sharing system.

But Mr Berri’s deputy said Mr Sawan’s case, as outlined in a letter to Parliament, lacked evidence.

Mr Diab and the three former ministers snubbed his summons, saying he had no authority to question them under the constitution, which protects members of parliament and ministers from prosecution.

After Mr Diab’s indictment, Mr Hariri’s Future Movement repeated long-time accusations against Mr Aoun of steering the judiciary to settle political scores and of seeking to undermine the Taif Accord.

The agreement introduced key amendments to the constitution in a deal that ended the country’s 15-year civil war from 1975-1990, marking a shift in the power balance from the presidency, a post reserved for Christians, to the council of ministers.

Mr Aoun’s relationship with Mr Berri has also been marred by years of political bickering over key state appointments and disagreements over the make-up of successive governments.

Tension between Mr Aoun and his political rivals have complicated efforts to form a fully functioning Cabinet since the explosion forced Mr Diab’s resignation.

Lebanese leaders have failed to agree on a Cabinet that commits to implementing reforms as part of an initiative led by French President Emmanuel Macron to secure international financial support for Lebanon.

The country is suffering its worst economic and financial crisis since the end of the civil war.

On Thursday, Mr Macron cancelled a scheduled trip to Beirut on December 23 after testing positive for Covid-19.

It would have been his third to the Lebanese capital since August, when officials promised him they would swiftly form a Cabinet.

Prime minister-designate Mr Hariri has accused the Free Patriotic Movement, the party founded by Mr Aoun and led by his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, of blocking Cabinet formation by demanding more than a third of the seats, giving them power to veto key government resolutions.

Mr Bassil, a staunch ally of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed armed group that Washington classifies as a terrorist organisation, was recently the target of US sanctions under the Magnitsky Act.

He and his political rivals have been trading blame over rampant corruption across state institutions, which fuelled nationwide protests in late 2019 that brought down Mr Hariri’s government.

More than a year later, little has been done to contain the crisis that led the national currency to lose more than 80 per cent of its value against the dollar as foreign currency reserves dwindled.

Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh recently announced that the regulator could afford to subsidise fuel and pharmaceutical imports at the official exchange rate for only two more months.

Mr Salameh was heard by a judge on Thursday in the case of “squandering” foreign currency reserves, the National News Agency reported.

He has blocked a forensic audit of the central bank, saying it breached banking secrecy laws.

The audit is a prerequisite for much international financial aid, with more than half of Lebanon’s population expected to be living below the poverty line by 2021, World Bank estimates show.

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