Lebanon judge removed from Beirut blast probe: judicial source

Beirut (AFP) –


A Lebanese court Thursday removed the judge leading a probe into Beirut's massive blast last August, a judicial source said, in line with a request from two former ministers he had charged.

The August 4 blast that killed more that 200 people and ravaged large parts of the capital was caused by the detonation of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate left for years to linger on the dockside of Beirut port.

Judge Fadi Sawan had suspended the investigation into Lebanon's worst peacetime disaster in mid-December after the former ministers he charged over the explosion filed a complaint.

On Thursday, "the Cassation Court decided to transfer the investigation... from Sawan to another judge", who has not been named yet, the judicial source said.

On December 10, Sawan had issued charges against caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers of "negligence and causing death to hundreds".

Premier-designate Saad Hariri and the powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement were among those to oppose the indictment.

Among those charged were former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and ex-public works minister Ghazi Zaiter, who accused Sawan of violating the constitution on the grounds of immunity and moved to have him removed from the case.

Rights activists condemned Thursday's ruling.

Sawan's removal "makes a mockery of justice and is an insult to the victims of the blast", Human Rights Watch researcher Aya Majzoub wrote on Twitter.

"More than six months later, we are back to square one."

Lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh said he needed to see the full court decision, but feared the worst.

"By refusing to be held accountable, the ministers and political class are drawing a red line in the investigation," he said, adding it was a "common occurrence in Lebanon that prevents any justice from being achieved".

The investigation had led to the arrest of at least 25 suspects, including the chief of the port and its customs director, but not a single politician.

It had focused mainly on who to blame over negligence for the tragedy, not trying to find out how the ammonium nitrate ended up in Beirut.