image Photo: Reuters

Multiple lawsuits stall Beirut blast probe

Several former Lebanese officials have filed lawsuits against investigation by Judge Tarek Bitar of their roles in the deadly 4 August explosion at the Beirut Port.

By Erin Viner

Interrogation of former Prime Minister Hassan Diab was suspended after he sued the state over questioning of his role in the blast, which killed 215 people, injured thousands of others and destroyed large areas of the city. Diab and his entire government resigned in the wake of the disaster, that was ignited by improper storage of an enormous quantity of ammonium nitrate.

Diab, a Sunni Muslim who has been charged in connection with the explosion, had already missed at least two interrogation sessions. His lawsuit alleges that Bitar lacks the authority to question a former premier. Lebanon’s top Sunni cleric Mufti Abdel-Latif Derian issued a statement arguing that Diab could only be prosecuted at a special court formed by a parliamentary vote.

Amid what Reuters referred to as “a smear campaign” against Bitar and “pushback from powerful factions,” other ex-government officials have also filed lawsuits.

Former Interior Minister and current Member of Parliament (MP) Nohad Machnouk – who was slated to submit to questioning today – filed a similar suit to Diab’s yesterday. Sitting MP and Ex-Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter joined the legal maneuvering against Bitar by filing a motion to have him removed from the case.

Nearly all of Lebanon’s top politicians have refused to cooperate with the investigation.

The dispute has paralyzed the cabinet led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who suspended all sessions until the stand-off has been resolved.

There has also been an eruption of sectarian violence over the matter. 7 Shi’ite Muslim supporters of the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its ally, the Amal movement, were killed on 12 October during a violent demonstration in the Christian Beirut neighborhood of Ain el-Remmaneh in protest against a court refusal to dismiss Bitar.

The legal quagmire comes as Lebanon struggles to cope with one of the worst financial meltdowns in modern history. Potential foreign aid donors have called for a transparent investigation into the blast before they will contribute funds to bail out the impoverished nation.