By Timour Azhari,
Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon’s outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers have been charged with negligence that led to the deaths of hundreds and injuries to thousands in the massive August Beirut port explosion.
Fadi Sawan, the judge investigating the blast, on Thursday charged Diab, former public works ministers Ghazi Zaeiter and Youssef Fenianos and former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a senior judicial source told Al Jazeera.
Sawan is set to question Diab as a defendant in the case on Monday at the Grand Serail, the seat of government in Beirut. He has also called in the three ministers for questioning on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, also as defendants.
Sawan had previously questioned them only as “witnesses”.
The judge’s decision comes two weeks after he sent a letter to Lebanon’s Parliament asking legislators to investigate ministers over the blast at a special parliamentary court for the prosecution of top officials. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri declined.
The source told Al Jazeera Sawan had tried to get Parliament “to explore the political responsibility of ministers, but they declined to move forward. This pushed him to file these charges of negligence, which he considers within his jurisdiction”.
The decision to prosecute the outgoing prime minister and former ministers is based on verified written correspondence sent to them, warning the officials about nearly 3,000 tonnes of explosive material at Beirut’s port, the source said.
In response to the charges, Diab’s office in a statement said the prime minister’s “conscience is clear” and that he had dealt with the explosion issue in a “responsible and transparent” manner.
“This surprising targeting goes beyond the person to the position per se, and Hassan Diab will not allow the premiership to be targeted by any party,” the statement said.
Diab’s office indicated the prime minister would not comply with Sawan’s move to question him, alleging Sawan had violated the constitution by overstepping the role of parliament, which has a specialised court for the trial of top officials.
The three former ministers’ phones were off when called by an Al Jazeera reporter.
The latest charges raise the number of people being prosecuted over the blast to 37, some 25 of whom are in detention.
The blast killed some 200 people, injured more than 6,000 and caused billions of dollars in damage to the capital. Diab’s government resigned in the wake of the explosion but has continued to function in a caretaker capacity since.
Diab, a relative political newcomer, has said he initially learned of the presence of the explosive material on June 3, 2020.
But he said he waited until a report by the State Security agency on the matter was handed to him in late July before he took any action, which he said entailed informing relevant ministries to look into the matter.
Khalil and Zaieter are both veteran ministers with Berri’s Amal Movement, while Fenianos is a senior official in the Marada Movement of Christian leader Suleiman Frangieh.
They held office in the time after the explosive material entered Beirut’s port in late 2013 on board a cargo vessel.
Khalil served as finance minister from 2014 to 2020, during which time he nominally oversaw Lebanese Customs, whose head has been charged and detained in the case, along with a number of other officials.
Zaieter and Fenianos headed the public works ministry from 2014 to 2016 and 2016 to 2020 respectively.
The ministry is in charge of overseeing the port, and it’s director of Land and Maritime Transport, Abdel-Hafiz al-Kaissy, has been charged in the blast case.
Main Photo: The latest charges raise the number of people being prosecuted over the blast to 37, some 25 of whom are in detention [File: Dalati Nohra/Handout via Reuters]