Charges in Beirut blast inquiry hit political pushback

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BEIRUT – Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah said on Friday charges brought against the prime minister and three former ministers over the Beirut port explosion smacked of “political targeting”.

The statement from the heavily armed, Iran-backed group is part of a wider pushback by some influential parties against the charges brought by Judge Fadi Sawan on Thursday, showing the political minefield facing the investigation.

Sawan charged caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, whose cabinet quit after the blast, and three former ministers with negligence over the August explosion that killed 200 people and devastated swathes of Beirut.

The explosion, one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts on record, was caused by a massive quantity of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely at the port for years.

Officials who were informed about the ammonium nitrate included Diab and President Michel Aoun, who were warned in July that it posed a major security risk, according to documents seen by Reuters.

Diab, who says his conscience is clear, has accused Sawan of breaching the constitution. So has Ali Hassan Khalil, one of the ex-ministers, a close Hezbollah ally and senior aide to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

While saying it supported a transparent inquiry, Hezbollah said Sawan’s measures should be far removed from politics and in line with the constitution.

“We absolutely reject the absence of unified standards that has led to what we believe to be political targeting against some people and ignoring others,” it said.

The other two former ministers charged alongside Khalil – Ghazi Zeaiter and Youssef Finianos – are also Hezbollah allies.

The United States has imposed sanctions on Finianos and Khalil, accusing them of enabling Hezbollah, which Washington deems a terrorist organisation.

There has been debate about whether ministers enjoyed immunity in the case. Melham Khalaf, head of the Beirut bar association, praised Sawan’s move, saying it showed courage.

Najib Mikati, prime minister from 2011 to 2014, criticised Sawan’s charges. He suggested that while Diab has been charged, President Aoun, who was informed about the presence of the dangerous material, was omitted.

Aoun said in August he was informed about the material and had directed the secretary general of the Supreme Defence Council, a grouping of security and military agencies chaired by the president, to “do what is necessary”.

Reuters

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