Beirut port blast judge still wants to question ex-ministers

A judicial official says the judge leading Lebanon’s probe into last year’s massive port explosion has renewed his summonses of two former ministers for questioning

BEIRUT -- The judge leading Lebanon’s probe into last year’s massive port explosion renewed on Tuesday his summonses of two former ministers for questioning, a judicial official said.

The decision by Judge Tarek Bitar came despite intense criticism from the country’s powerful Hezbollah group of the direction of the long-running investigation.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has accused Bitar of politicizing the probe and singling out some officials and not others. He has called on the government to remove Bitar.

Bitar has been in the post since February, after his predecessor was removed by a court decision following legal challenges from senior government officials who were also summoned.

Nasrallah's accusations marked a major escalation in rhetoric targeting Bitar and were followed by protests in the capital Beirut last week by supporters of Hezbollah and its ally Amal against the judge. The protests descended into violence unseen in Lebanon in years: Seven people were killed during five hours of clashes between supporters of the two Shiite groups and gunmen accused of being allied with Lebanon’s right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces.

His critics held Bitar responsible for the bloodshed.

But on Tuesday, the judge went ahead with summoning two former government ministers, one of them an ally of Hezbollah, for questioning regarding the port blast.

Bitar had issued arrest warrants for the two ex-ministers but with the resumption of parliament sessions Tuesday following a recess, the ministers reclaimed parliamentary immunity, which had shielded them from previous interrogation.

The two former ministers, Ghazi Zeitar and Nohad Machnouk, are also lawmakers. They were summoned to appear Oct. 29, the judicial official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The former ministers’ legal teams argue that with parliamentary immunity in place, the officials are exempt from appearing before the judge. But according to the parliament’s bylaws, Bitar can renew his summonses because he first called for their questioning in a period when parliament was in recess — at a time when the two men had briefly lost their immunity.

Legal experts have called it the “battle of immunities” as the defendants and the lead judge have looked for loopholes in the law to each get their way.

The result has been interruptions of the investigation, which is centered on what caused the explosion of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive fertilizer often used to make bombs, stored in the port for years.

Independent media and rights groups have revealed that senior government officials knew of the material stored in the port but did nothing to store it properly or warn the public of its presence and danger.

More than 215 people died and over 6,000 were injured in the blast that devastated parts of the city Beirut.