Lebanon News

Lebanon removes lead Beirut blast investigator from probe

A mother of a victim of the Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion reacts next of a portrait of her son who was killed in the explosion, during a sit-in outside the Justice Palace in Beirut, Feb. 18, 2021. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

BEIRUT: The Lebanese Court of Cassation Thursday issued a decision to remove lead investigator Judge Fadi Sawwan from the Beirut blast probe, a judicial source told The Daily Star.

Head of the Court of Cassation Judge Jamal al-Hajjar decided to remove Sawwan and refer the probe to another judge. A copy of the court decision obtained by The Daily Star said that one of the factors that led to its decision is the fact that Sawwan was affected by the blast himself as his apartment in Achrafieh was damaged from the explosion, as it hit half the capital. Therefore, the court said that neither Sawwan nor any other judge can fully be impartial in their decisions if they have been affected from the incident they are investigating.

His decision came after former Public Works and Transport Minister Ghazi Zeaiter and former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil filed a request in December challenging the court to remove Sawwan from the case.

This is yet another setback for the already stalled investigation into the Beirut blast as the justice minister has to now propose a new name to lead the probe, which the Judicial Council should approve. The new judge will then have to launch the investigation all over again.

The process of Sawwan's appointment back in August was cloudy and surrounded by allegations of political interference. Two names proposed by the caretaker justice minister were rejected by the Judicial Council with no explanation, citing the confidential nature of their meetings.

Sawwan had charged caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab along with Zeaiter, Khalil and former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos for negligence in connection to the Aug. 4 Beirut Port Blast. All of these officials have refused to be interrogated by the judge.

The investigation was paused for nearly two months after Sawwan's legal authority was challenged by the former ministers in December. The Court of Cassation gave Sawwan the green light to resume the probe on Jan. 11, and the judge began questioning officials just last week after judicial proceedings were stalled because of the coronavirus lockdown.

Human Rights Watch said the judge's removal based on a complaint from politicians was "an insult" to the victims.

"We are back to square one," researcher Aya Majzoub said. "We need answers, and Lebanon has shown that it is incapable of providing them."

More than six months after the Beirut Port blast that killed more than 200 people and left around 6,000 injured, families of victims and the general public still await for justice to be served and continue to call for accountability as no one has been sentenced yet in connection to the blast. Sawwan had brought charges against 37 people, of whom 25 are detained and most are mid- to low-level security and port officials.

Family members of the blast victims took to the streets after the decision to remove Sawwan, protesting in front of the Justice Palace in Beirut and burning tires as they blocked the street.

"We will not let our children's blood go to waste," protesters shouted, threatening to escalate their actions. They called for the removal of the entire political class, which they said was stalling and obstructing the Beirut blast probe.

Kayan Tleis, whose 40-year-old-brother was killed in the blast, told AP that Sawwan was up against major political actors.

"We had put a lot of hope in Judge Sawwan. But there were lots of political pressure on him, and once he started summoning senior officials, it was likely they would get rid of him or take the file away," Tleis said.

The Lebanese people have little trust in their country's judiciary as it isn't regarded as an independent and is often controlled by the country's political elite. However Sawwan's summoning of senior politicians had given them a glimpse of hope. -- With AP





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