Judge in Beirut port blast demands arrest of former minister

BEIRUT (AP) — The judge leading Lebanon’s investigation into last year’s massive blast at Beirut’s port demanded on Friday the arrest of a former Cabinet minister he had implicated in the case, judicial officials said.

The development comes three days after a Lebanese court cleared the way for Judge Tarek Bitar to resume his work on the probe, following a suspension that had lasted over a month. The investigation was suspended because of legal challenges filed by former officials the judge had implicated in the case.

The August 2020 blast at Beirut’s port killed at least 216 people, injured thousands and devastated entire neighborhoods of the Lebanese capital.

Bitar had issued an arrest warrant in October for former finance minister, Ali Hassan Khalil. On Friday, he demanded the warrant be implemented “immediately,” the judicial officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Last month, Lebanon’s police chief said he could not carry out a similar warrant since Khalil as a lawmaker enjoys parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Khalil is a close aide to powerful Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, allied with Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militant group. Both Berri and Hezbollah have demanded that Bitar be removed, citing alleged bias.

In the 2020 explosion, hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers, had been improperly stored in Beirut’s port for years, with apparent prior knowledge of many of the country’s top leaders.

More than a year after the government launched a judicial investigation, nearly everything else remains unknown — from who ordered the shipment to why officials ignored repeated warnings of the danger.

Bitar had charged Khalil and three other former senior government officials with intentional killing and negligence that led to the deaths of scores of people in the port explosion.

It was not immediately clear if Khalil will be arrested.

The probe into the port explosion was suspended in November for the third time, due to a deluge of legal challenges filed by those accused. Several officials, including Khalil, have refused to be questioned.

Disagreements over Bitar’s work among rival Lebanese political groups have paralyzed the government, which has not held a meeting since mid-October.

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