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Beirut explosion: Judge requests permission to lift immunity from politicians

If the requests are approved, Judge Tarek Bitar will be allowed to prosecute the officials over the 4 August Beirut port explosion
The move by the investigation's lead judge is reminiscent of the actions that got his predecessor fired (AFP/Joseph Eid)

The judge leading the investigation into the Beirut explosion, Tarek Bitar, has asked parliament to lift immunity from senior political officials, Lebanon's National News Agency said on Friday.

Bitar, who took over the investigation after his predecessor was removed in February, is also seeking to question top politicians, including caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab, and security officials. The NNA said no dates have been set yet.

The requests, which come almost 11-months since the explosion that devastated the city, will allow the judge to prosecute the officials.

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The blast at Beirut’s port on 4 August killed at least 200 people and wounded thousands of others after more than 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, stored in poor conditions, caught fire and exploded.

Ordinary Lebanese have grown increasingly angry that no senior officials have been held accountable for the explosion, which also ruined whole neighbourhoods and displaced hundreds of thousands of families.

Judge Bitar wants former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, former interior minister Nohad Machnouk, and former public works minister Ghazi Zeaiter to be stripped of their immunity as a first step towards charging them.

He also asked for permission from caretaker interior minister, Mohamed Fahmi to question Lebanon's security chief Major General Abbas Ibrahim, the agency said.

Bitar's list included another former public works minister, Youssef Finianos, and Major General Tony Saliba, the head of state security.

According to article 40 of Lebanon’s constitution, members of the legislature may not be prosecuted or arrested for any criminal offence without permission from parliament. However, the law could be overruled if an MP is caught during the offence.

Bitar’s predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, was fired earlier this year by the Court of Cassation after he charged and summoned Khalil, Zeaiter and Hassan Diab for questioning. 

Khalil and Zeaitar, both of the Amal Movement, which is headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, at the time submitted a request to the judiciary to remove Sawan from the investigation, accusing him of overstepping his powers.

The Court of Cassation cited "legitimate suspicion" over Sawan's neutrality, partly because his house was damaged in the blast.

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