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Beirut explosion: Judge suspends blast probe amid political pressure

Two ministers charged in explosion investigation have requested that Judge Fadi Sawwan be removed from proceedings
Helicopter battles fire at scene of explosion at port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on 4 August (AFP/File photo)

The judge overseeing an investigation into the massive explosion that rocked Beirut in August has suspended the probe after two ministers he charged with negligence requested that he be removed, according to judicial sources. 

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Judge Fadi Sawwan on 10 December issued charges against former caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab and high-ranking former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil, Ghazi Zaiter and Youssef Fenianos over the 4 August blast. 

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The four were charged with "negligence and causing death to hundreds and injuries to thousands more" in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

Lebanon's top Cassation Court is now expected to rule on their request for Sawwan to be removed from his post, AFP reported.

"Until then, all investigation proceedings are suspended," a senior court judicial official told the news agency on condition of anonymity.

'This is a security coup'

Earlier this week, a source close to Judge Sawwan told Middle East Eye that the investigation into the blast has been the target of a scathing "political campaign".

Lebanon's politicians have rallied around the argument that any indictment of a minister should be submitted to a vote in parliament.

The four indicted ministers were the first politicians to be charged since the beginning of the investigation, which opened on 14 August. Other officials, including the country’s justice minister and some predecessors, were interrogated, but as witnesses rather than as defendants.  

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Diab, who resigned in the wake of the explosion, already testified before Sawwan in September.

Karim Nammour, a lawyer and board member at rights group Legal Agenda, warned last week that the independence of the legal probe was at risk. 

"The judiciary is being directly targeted," he told MEE at the time, adding that Lebanon has become far more militarised in recent months. "When you are discrediting the role of the judiciary … this is a security coup in every sense of the word." 

Nammour noted that the judiciary has been "discredited publicly", especially as judges have begun to defy political orders. Last month, Mohammed Fahmi, the caretaker interior minister, claimed that "95 percent of judges are corrupt".

The explosion that rocked the capital this summer, killing about 200 people and wounding thousands, was caused by almost 3,000 tonnes of explosive ammonium nitrate left unattended at the port for more than half a decade.

The fact that little light has been shed on the circumstances that led to Lebanon's worst peacetime disaster four months after the blast has caused outrage.

It is also fuelling mistrust among international donors whose support is needed if Lebanon is to stand a chance of surviving its worst-ever economic crisis.

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