BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister has declined to be interrogated by the prosecutor in charge of the Beirut port blast investigation, persons familiar with the case said Monday, casting doubts on the future of the probe.
Premier Hassan Diab and three former Cabinet ministers were charged last week by Judge Fadi Sawwan with negligence in the massive Aug. 4 blast that killed over 200 people, injured thousands and caused widespread destruction in the capital.
The explosion was caused by the ignition of a large stockpile of explosive material that had been stored at the port for six years with the knowledge of top security officials and politicians who did nothing about it. The four are the most senior officials to be charged in the investigation and were set to be questioned as defendants this week by Sawwan, starting with Diab on Monday.
After the four declined to show up, the judge rescheduled the sessions for later this week, judicial officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Diab, however, has rejected the charges as “politically targeting” the position of prime minister and accused Sawwan of violating the constitution and bypassing parliament. He also said he had already given the prosecutor all the information he has during an initial questioning session as a witness in September.
The surprise move by Sawwan has been praised by families of the victims of the port explosion, but criticized by politicians and the militant group Hezbollah as unconstitutional. Among those who rejected it were Lebanon’s top Sunni Muslim cleric and former prime ministers, including premier-designate Saad Hariri, a political foe of Diab.
Lebanon’s prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, according to the country’s sectarian-based power-sharing system.
A person familiar with the case said Diab would not meet with Sawwan Monday. Another person referred inquiries about Diab’s questioning to a statement issued by the prime minister’s office last week. That statement said the premier informed Sawwan that “Diab has already provided all the information he had regarding this file, period.”
They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The united front in support of Diab was seen by many as an attempt to block a precedent that might lead to accountability on a high level. A culture of impunity has prevailed in Lebanon for decades, including among the entrenched political elites. It has also fostered widespread corruption that has helped plunge Lebanon into the worst economic and financial crisis in its history.
Diab, a former university professor who has cast himself as a reformer among Lebanon’s widely corrupt political class, was criticized by some activists for refusing to appear before Sawwan on Monday.
Rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh tweeted that Diab, like other politicians, is trying to “escape accountability by hiding behind his sect.”
Former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former minister of public works Ghazi Zeiter told the daily Al-Akhbar that they also will not show up for questioning. Both are members of parliament and the legislature will have to remove their parliamentary immunity.
According to the judicial officials, Diab is now scheduled to be questioned on Friday.
Legal experts said that by issuing new dates for questioning, Sawwan is showing determination to go ahead with his work despite the pressure.
It was not clear what the judge’s next steps will be if the politicians again decline to be questioned. Among his options are issuing arrest warrants. Or if he is totally ignored he may decide to step down. That would deal a major blow to the investigation into Lebanon’s most destructive single incident in its history.
Diab, who is supported by Hezbollah and its political allies, resigned six days after the blast but remains in his post in a caretaker capacity, as Lebanese officials have failed to agree on a new Cabinet.
The move by Sawwan to exercise his discretion to accuse government officials came after he sent a letter and documents to parliament last month informing lawmakers of serious suspicions relating to government officials and asking them to investigate. The lawmakers responded by saying the material they received did not point to any professional wrongdoing.
The quarrel over the legality of Sawwan’s charges is adding tensions in a country that is in the middle of a financial meltdown and without a functioning government.
Despite the economic and financial crash, Lebanese politicians have not agreed yet on a new government and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is not expected to form one soon amid political bickering.
Ahead of an expected visit by French President Emmanuel Macron next week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned of a disastrous outcome for Lebanon if it continues on this path, likening its situation to the Titanic ship right before it sank.
“For me, Lebanon is the Titanic without the orchestra,” he said in comments to Le Figaro Sunday. “The Lebanese are in total denial of their situation and there is not even any music.”
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