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Lebanese judge charges caretaker PM in August port explosion

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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 – The Lebanese prosecutor probing last summer’s port explosion in Beirut filed charges on Thursday against the caretaker prime minister and three former ministers, accusing them of negligence that led to the death of hundreds of people, Lebanon’s official news agency said.

The four are the most senior individuals to be indicted so far in the investigation, which is being conducted in secrecy. And though it is too early to predict whether any of the four would end up on trial, the development was significant in Lebanon, where a culture of impunity has prevailed for decades, including among the entrenched political elites.

Judge Fadi Sawwan, the prosecutor responsible for the investigation, filed the charges against Hassan Diab and former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, as well as Ghazi Zeiter and Youssef Fenianos, both former ministers of public works. All four were charged with carelessness and negligence leading to death over the Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut's port, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands.

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.

Anger has been building up over the slow investigation, lack of answers and the fact that no senior officials have been indicted. About 30 other security officials and port and customs officials have been detained in the probe so far.

Diab is a former professor at the American University of Beirut who became prime minister late last year. Although he served as minister of education from 2011-14, he is considered to be an outsider to the political ruling class that has run Lebanon since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

Since the shipment of ammonium nitrates arrived in Lebanon in late 2013, four prime ministers have been in office. It was not clear why Sawwan has singled out Diab, who was prime minister for less than a year among the ex-premiers who have held the post while the nitrates were improperly stored at a port warehouse, a ticking bomb.

Diab received the backing of the Hezbollah group and its allies after Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in the wake of mass antigovernment protests late last year. Diab himself resigned a few days after the blast, which leveled the country's main port and destroyed large parts of the city. He has continued to function in caretaker capacity while efforts to form a new government have floundered amid political disputes.

Commenting on Thursday's development, Diab said his conscience is clear and he is "confident that his hands are clean and that he handled the Beirut port blast file in a responsible and transparent manner."

A statement issued by his office accused Judge Sawwan of violating the constitution and bypassing parliament, adding that Diab has already provided all the information he had to Sawwan. The judge first questioned Diab over the blast in September.

“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,” a statement issued by his office said.

It was not clear whether his comments meant he would not accept to be questioned again. Judge Sawwan said he would interrogate Diab and the three ministers as defendants next week.

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

“This is an important and brave decision and requires a lot of courage,” said attorney Diane Assaf. The question now is how far will the judge go, she said, adding that Sawwan could either stop after questioning them as defendants, issue a temporary travel ban or arrest warrant, or issue an indictment, meaning they would go on trial.

A conviction in a crime of negligence that causes deaths can carry a prison term of up to three years.

Youssef Lahoud, a lawyer representing families affected by the blast, described Sawwan's move as “essential step toward revealing the complete truth.” He said Sawwan is charging the four based on a criminal investigation.

The Aug. 4 blast is considered to be among the largest non-nuclear explosions ever to be recorded.

Zeitar was transport and public works minister in 2014, followed by Fenianos in 2016, who held the job until the beginning of 2020. Khalil was finance minister in 2014 and from 2016 until 2020.

Documents surfaced soon after the explosion showing that at least 10 times over the past six years, authorities from Lebanon’s customs, military, security agencies and judiciary raised the alarm that a massive stockpile of potentially dangerous chemicals was being kept with almost no safeguard at the port in the heart of Beirut.

President Michel Aoun, in office since 2016, said he was first told of the stockpile nearly three weeks before the explosion and immediately ordered military and security agencies to do “what was needed.” But he suggested his responsibility ended there, saying he had no authority over the port and that previous governments had been told of its presence.

Former Prime Ministers Najib Mikati, Tammam Salam and Saad Hariri have reportedly said that they were not aware of the existence of the material. Diab has said he was only informed about the presence of the “explosives” days before the blast and had planned to visit the port. Later, he told reporters he canceled the visit after being told the stored chemicals were fertilizers.

“There is a list to be made of all those who knew and should all be held responsible,” said Elie Hasrouty, whose father died in the port explosion. “Their job is not to refer (the matter) to others, but to stop that ‘bomb' from going off and to protect people.”

Investigators probing the blast had so far focused on personnel at the Port of Beirut.

Both Khalil and Fenanios were sanctioned by the U.S. in September this year, the first two officials to be subjected to those outside of the militant Hezbollah group.

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Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb and Dalal Mawad in Beirut contributed reporting.