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Charges in Beirut port blast stir controversy in Lebanon

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FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2020 file photo, outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab, speaks during a press conference after his government was announced, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon. On Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, the Lebanese prosecutor probing this summer's port explosion in Beirut filed charges against Diab, and three former ministers, Lebanon's official news agency said. All four were charged with negligence leading to deaths over the Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut port, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

BEIRUT – Top Lebanese politicians and the militant Hezbollah group rallied on Friday against charges of negligence levelled against the caretaker prime minister and three former ministers over the massive explosion in Beirut’s port, underscoring the enormous difficulties facing the investigation.

Hezbollah called on investigating judge Fadi Sawwan to reconsider the charges, calling them “political targeting” and saying they lacked legal and constitutional basis.

Similar criticism was voiced by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, who visited the accused caretaker Premier Hassan Diab — a political foe — in a gesture of solidarity. Lebanon’s grand mufti, the top cleric for Sunni Muslims, said the charges are an attack on “the office of the prime minister” and were a violation of the constitution. The prime minister in Lebanon must be a Sunni Muslim, according to the country’s sectarian-based power-sharing system.

The four are the most senior officials to be charged in the investigation and are set to be questioned as defendants next week by Judge Sawwan.

It was not clear whether the criticism could have an impact on the investigation — or the charges— but the united front was seen by many as an attempt to block a precedent that might lead to accountability on a high level. A culture of impunity has prevailed in Lebanon for decades, including among the entrenched political elites. It has also fostered widespread corruption that has helped plunge Lebanon into the worst economic and financial crisis in its history.

“What is happening now can be summed up in four words: Gangs defending each other,” tweeted Riad Kobaissi, an investigative journalist who has followed corruption at Beirut port.

In a stunning move, Judge Sawwan filed the charges against Diab and three former ministers on Thursday, accusing them of negligence that led to the death of hundreds of people in the catastrophic explosion in August. At this point, however, it is far too early to say if any of the four will actually face trial.

Diab, who is supported by Hezbollah and its political allies, resigned in the wake of the Aug. 4 blast but remains in his post in a caretaker capacity, as Lebanese officials have failed to agree on a new Cabinet.

The explosion was caused by the ignition of a large stockpile of explosive material that had been stored at the port for six years, with the knowledge of top security officials and politicians who did nothing about it. It killed more than 200 people and wounded thousands, devastating large parts of the capital of Beirut.

According to Lebanon’s constitution, a separate council made up of judges and politicians and set up by parliament is entrusted with trying ministers and premiers for crimes of high treason, dereliction of duties, and breach of the constitution — a body that has never been activated by parliament.

The move by Sawwan to exercise his jurisdiction to accuse government officials came after he sent a letter and documents to parliament last month, informing lawmakers of serious suspicions relating to government officials and asking them to investigate. The lawmakers responded by saying that the material they received did not point to any professional wrongdoing.

Lawyer Youssef Lahoud, who represents the Bar Association in the investigation, said the parliament’s response does not prevent Sawwan from exercising his right to criminally charge government officials in the port explosion. The explosion is not viewed as a political crime, which would require the role of parliament, Lahoud said.

Sahar Mandour, a Lebanon researcher at Amnesty International, said Sawwan acted based on a legal interpretation which has been subjected to political scrutiny. The interpretation issued by the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest, allows for ministers and presidents to be tried in regular courts if they face regular crimes, such as negligence or murder, she said.

The three former ministers charged along with Diab are allies of Hezbollah. They are former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, as well as Ghazi Zeiter and Youssef Fenianos, both former ministers of public works.

Hezbollah said the four were being selectively charged.

“We are keen that all decisions taken by the investigating judge stay clear of politics and intent; be constitutional and not subject to interpretation or judgement; and that the indictment be based on legal and reasonable basis, which is what we did not find in the latest measures,” Hezbollah said in a statement.

“Therefore we absolutely reject the absence of unified criteria which led to what we consider political targeting affecting some people and ignoring others unfairly,” it added.

A statement from Diab’s office on Thursday accused Sawwan of violating the constitution and bypassing parliament. Although a political opponent, Hariri visited Diab on Friday in a gesture of solidarity.

Lebanon’s grand mufti and top cleric for Sunni Muslims, Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, also said the charges targeting the prime minister’s position is political and, unacceptable and a violation of the constitution.

Zeiter, the former minister of public works and currently a lawmaker, said in a press conference on Friday that the judge deviated from constitutional rules and abused power.

The judge committed a “catastrophe” on the judicial scale, Zeiter said, adding that he and the others charged would not be silenced by “any fake accusations.”

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Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed reporting.