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February 18, 2021 9:26 am

Lebanese Court Removes Judge From Beirut Port Blast Probe

avatar by Reuters and Algemeiner Staff

Smoke rises from the site of an explosion in Beirut’s port area, Lebanon August 4, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo.

A Lebanese court on Thursday removed Judge Fadi Sawan from the Beirut port explosion probe after a request from two lawmakers charged over the blast in a move likely to further delay an investigation that has faced fierce political opposition.

Lebanese people are still waiting for answers more than six months since a stockpile of ammonium nitrate, stored unsafely for years at the port, detonated, killing 200 people, injuring thousands and devastating entire districts.

Sawan charged three ex-ministers and caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab in December with negligence over the Aug. 4 explosion, the largest non-nuclear blast in history, that has further exacerbated strains on a country struggling with its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Diab declined to be questioned, saying Sawan had overstepped his powers. Diab says his conscience is clear.

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Two of the others charged, Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister, and Ghazi Zeaiter, a former public works minister, said in December they had not been officially informed of the call for questioning, which protocol demanded.

They too say Sawan has overstepped his powers and asked the court to remove him from the case, which the court agreed to on Thursday. Sawan could not be reached for comment.

Both Khalil and Zeaiter are lawmakers from Amal, the Shi’ite party led by powerful Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is allied to Shi’ite Hezbollah, which Washington considers a terrorist organization. Amal has accused Sawan of breaching the constitution.

The third former minister, Youssef Finianos, a Hezbollah ally sanctioned by the United States for his links to the group, was due to be questioned on Thursday but had also said he would not turn up for the session.

Hezbollah has said the charges smacked of “political targeting.” Sawan had also faced opposition from Sunni prime minister designate Saad al-Hariri.

The head of the Beirut Bar Association had said the move to charge the four had showed courage.

Youssef Lahoud, the lawyer who represents around 1,400 victims of the explosion, told Reuters it would now be up to the minister of justice to nominate other judges for the probe with approval from the higher judicial council necessary for confirmation.

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