BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s highest court on Thursday decided to remove the chief prosecutor investigating last year’s massive Beirut port explosion, following legal challenges by senior officials he had accused of negligence that led to the blast, a judicial official and the country’s official news agency said.
The Court of Cassation called for a new investigating judge to be appointed to lead the probe, nearly six months after it had started.
The development is likely to further delay the investigation into the horrific explosion that killed more than 200 people, wounded over 6,000 and disfigured much 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 nitrate, a dangerous chemical stored in the port for years.
A dozen family members held a protest and blocked traffic, burning tires outside the Palace of Justice on Thursday.
“Don’t be afraid. Don’t leave the case,” Yousra Abou Saleh, a mother who lost her son in the explosion, pleaded with the judge. In a reference to the ruling class, she said, weeping: “God is greater than all of them.”
Human Rights Watch, the New-York based watchdog, said the decision to remove Investigating Judge Fadi Sawwan “makes a mockery of justice'” and is an “insult to the victims.”
The decision shows the courts in Lebanon “have drawn the red lines: politicians are not subject to the rule of law,” said Aya Majzoub, of Human Rights Watch.
The explosion, one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history, has been one of the most traumatic national experiences the Lebanese have faced. Family members of those killed had been skeptical of a transparent and independent investigation into the Aug. 4 explosion, 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.
This week Sawwan summoned for questioning the third former minister, who tweeted he would not show up.
Details of Thursday’s decision were not made public but a copy of the 25-page decision leaked to the media showed the former ministers had accused Sawwan of disrespecting parliamentary immunity and argued that because his house was impacted by the explosion, he could not be impartial in the case.
According to the law, the minister of justice now has to propose a new lead investigator, to be approved by a government-appointed judicial body.
Sawwan’s appointment process itself was considered opaque and the investigation, so far secret, has been tainted with political interference, Human Rights Watch has said. Two judges named by the justice minister before Sawwan were rejected without an explanation by the body in charge of approving the selection.
The families of the victims said political pressure removed Sawwan from the post.
“There was a lot of political pressure on him. Once he started summoning senior officials, it was likely they would get rid of him or take the file away,” said Kayan Tleis, whose 40-year-old-brother was killed in the blast.
Majzoub, of Human Rights Watch, said there “were many serious problems with Sawan’s investigation, and there may have been legitimate reasons to challenge” it.
“But the mere fact that he charged politicians is not one of them,” she added, calling for an independent international probe. “This charade needs to end.”
Associated Press writers Dala Mawad and Fay Abuelgasim in Beirut contributed to this report.
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