The judge who led Lebanon's investigation into the catastrophic explosion in Beirut has charged the Prime Minister and three former ministers with criminal negligence that has caused hundreds of deaths.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab is due to be questioned next week at the Prime Minister's Grand Serail residence by Judge Fadi Sawan, who is leading the investigation. The judge will also question two former public works and transport ministers, Ghazi Zaiter and Yussef Fenianos, and ex-finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil.
About 200 people were killed and thousands injured in August when one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in modern history struck Beirut's port with a supply of neglected chemicals
The charges, reported Thursday by the state's National News Agency, are seen as a shot in the arm for the investigation, which opened shortly after the explosion but has been criticized for its slow progress.
"It's a positive development, of course, because previously [the judge] said there was ministerial immunity," said Nizar Saghieh, director of The Legal Agenda, an advocacy group. Under pressure from street protesters and legal activists, "he has now realized that he can [charges against ministers]". Between 30 and 35 people have now been charged, Saghieh said.
Mr Diab's office said in a statement that the Prime Minister had informed the judge that Mr Diab had nothing to add to a statement he had already made while witnessing the investigation. Mr Diab had "said everything he had to say", the statement said, and accused the judge of violating the Lebanese constitution.
His office said in an earlier statement on Thursday that Mr Diab has a “clear conscience” and “clean hands” and that he has taken responsibility for the port disaster in a “transparent” manner.
Mr Diab is a former university professor who was named Prime Minister in January 2020 and resigned days after the disaster. Since then, he has remained a caretaker as the Lebanese legislature did not form a new cabinet.
In 2014, around 2,750 tons of explosive-grade ammonium nitrate were brought into the port of the capital by court order, because there were fears that the seized ship could sink. Despite a paper trail from security and customs authorities sounding the alarm, the hazardous chemicals were stored alongside flammable materials in a warehouse.
In August, Lebanese President Michel Aoun publicly admitted that he had been informed of the chemical stocks. Although the ammonium nitrate was left there for six years, no other prime minister has been charged.
Shortly after the explosion, a government spokesman told the Financial Times that Mr Diab's office had received a report about ammonium nitrate in the port about two weeks before the explosion. The spokesman said the file was then forwarded to the Senior Defense Council for further investigation.
An analysis by Goldsmiths research agency Forensic Architecture, published by Egyptian newspaper Mada Masr, used footage of the smoke rising from the warehouse just before the explosion to conclude that fireworks were going off and possibly the big explosion triggered.
In September, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Mr. Fenianos and Mr. Khalil for corruption charges and support for Hezbollah, a powerful Iran-backed political party and paramilitary organization that Washington viewed as a terrorist organization.
Additional reporting from Asmaa al-Omar in Istanbul