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.