Families of Beirut blast victims: Judge removal politicized

BEIRUT (AP) — Families of the victims of last year’s massive explosion in Beirut’s denounced on Friday a court decision to remove the prosecutor investigating the blast, calling it an “execution of justice” by a politicized judiciary.

Their statement was read at a protest rally near the justice ministry during which the demonstrators burned tires. Thursday’s decision by the Court of Cassation will delay the investigation into the Aug. 4 blast, the families said, adding that the new judge will have to read “thousands of papers” in order to get up to speed on what outgoing Judge Fadi Sawwan has done over the past six months.

Thursday’s decision by the country’s highest court to remove Sawwan came after legal challenges by senior officials he had accused of negligence that led to the blast, considered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Sawwan was formally notified Friday that he would no longer lead the probe.

The decision is likely to further delay the investigation into the horrific explosion that killed 211 people, wounded over 6,000 and damaged large parts of Beirut. Families of the victims and survivors have accused the ruling political class of corruption and negligence that led to the explosion of ammonium nitrates, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored in the port for years.

“On the ill-fated date of Feb. 18, the sound of criminal corruption echoed and its hero this time was the politicized judiciary in Lebanon,” the families’ spokesman Ibrahim Hoteit, whose brother Tharwat was killed by the blast, read from the statement. The court decision blew up “what remains of conscience and confidence between us and this rotten judiciary.”

The explosion has been one of the most traumatic national experiences the Lebanese have faced. Family members of those killed are skeptical that any investigation into the explosion can be transparent and independent in a country where a culture of impunity has prevailed for decades.

Judge Sawwan had accused and summoned for questioning Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister and three former ministers on suspicion of negligence that led to the deadly explosion.

Two of the former ministers challenged Sawwan in court in December, accusing him of violating legal and constitutional procedures and asking that he be recused, a challenge that brought the probe to a halt. Last month, the Court of Cassation had asked Sawwan to resume his work while it looks into the complaints.

The families said they cannot change the court’s decision since it is binding and cannot be appealed. Still, they warned that in the future, they would resort to the street to pressure the judiciary to do its work, as well as politicians who refuse to show up for questioning.

Sawwan was officially informed about the court’s decision after arriving at his Beirut office on Friday morning. The Court called for a new investigating judge to be appointed to lead the probe, nearly six months after it started.

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