BEIRUT (AP) — The lead judge investigating Lebanon’s massive port explosion last year issued an arrest warrant on Thursday for a former minister who failed to appear for questioning, the state-run National News agency reported.
It was the first such warrant in the year-old probe that has hit many snags, particularly in implicating senior government officials in what was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. It's unclear how authorities will respond to the warrant.
Youssef Fenianos, the former public works minister, is one of a number of former government officials who have declined to appear before investigating judge Tarek Bitar.
Bitar has charged Fenianos and three other former senior government officials with intentional killing and negligence that led to the deaths of more than 200 people in the blast and over 6,000 injured.
Bitar also summoned the former and current security chiefs. The former prime minister has also refused to appear before the judge.
Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers, had been improperly stored in the port for years. It finally exploded on Aug. 4, 2020, devastating parts of the capital of Beirut.
The Lebanese investigation has been running into major obstacles, including the removal of Bitar’s predecessor on charges of violating the constitution by summoning government officials. More than a year later, there are still no answers to what triggered the explosion, and no one has been held accountable.
Rights groups and local media revealed that most state officials knew of the presence of ammonium nitrate in the port but did nothing to remove it or properly store it. In an extensive report issued last month, Human Rights Watch said senior officials knew of the risks posed by the highly explosive material and did nothing to protect the public against it.
On Wednesday, more than 140 local and international organizations and survivors of the blast repeated a call issued earlier, urging a U.N.-backed probe into the blast. The groups said government officials have refused to appear for questioning and authorities declined to lift immunity to allow for prosecution of members of parliament or senior government and security officials.
“Political leaders have attempted to cast doubt on Judge Bitar’s impartiality, accusing him of being politicized,” the groups said and criticized Lebanese security forces for forcefully breaking up protests by families of the blast victims on at least two occasions. “The failures of the domestic investigation to ensure accountability dramatically illustrates the larger culture of impunity for officials that has long been the case in Lebanon.”
Fenianos' legal team argued Thursday that the matter is no longer for Judge Bitar to investigate after parliament opened a review into the charges leveled against lawmakers and government officials.
The blast was the most destructive single incident in Lebanon’s troubled history, with violence going unpunished and a legal system widely criticized for falling under political influence.