Judge seeks arrest of former minister accused of Beirut explosion


Beirut — A chief judge investigating a large Lebanese harbor explosion last year issued an arrest warrant on Thursday for a former minister who did not appear for interrogation, the state news agency reported.

This was the first such warrant in a year-old investigation that ran into many obstacles, especially involving high-ranking government officials, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. It is unclear how the authorities will respond to the warrant.

Former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos is one of many former government officials who refused to appear before investigating Judge Tarek Bitar.

Bitar charged Fenianos and three other former government officials with deliberate killings and negligence, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than 6,000 in the explosion.

Bitar has also summoned former and current security chiefs. The former Prime Minister also refused to appear in front of the judge.

Hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive substance used in fertilizers, has been improperly stored in ports for years. It finally exploded on August 4, 2020, destroying part of Beirut’s capital.

A damaged car at the port of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, on April 9, 2021. (Joseph Eid / AFP) (via Getty Images)

The Lebanese investigation faces major obstacles, including summoning high-ranking government officials and dismissing Vital’s predecessor for unconstitutional charges. Even now, more than a year later, there is no answer to what triggered the explosion, and no one is held accountable.

Rights groups and local media have revealed that most state officials knew that ammonium nitrate was present in the port, but did nothing to remove it or store it properly. Human Rights Watch said in an extensive report published last month that senior officials were aware of the risks posed by explosive substances and then did nothing to protect the public.

On Wednesday, more than 140 local and international organizations and survivors of the blast repeated previously made calls, urging the blast to investigate UN-sponsored. The group said government officials refused to appear in the cross-examination, and authorities refused to lift the exemption to allow prosecution of parliamentarians or senior government officials and security officials.

“Political leaders questioned Judge Vital’s impartiality and accused him of being politicized,” the group said, forcing Lebanese security forces to protest at least twice by the families of the bomb victims. He criticized him for disbanding him. “The failure of domestic investigations to ensure accountability has dramatically shown a larger culture of impunity against officials, which has long been the case in Lebanon.”

Fenianos’ legal team argued that it is no longer a problem for Judge Vital to investigate after Congress began reviewing leveled charges against lawmakers and senior government officials on Thursday.

The explosion was the most devastating single event in Lebanon’s troubled history, violence was not punished, and the legal system was widely criticized for being under political influence.

Sarah El Dive

Associated Press