Lebanon judge seeks arrest of ex-minister charged in Beirut blast

Judge issues arrest warrant after former public works minister Youssef Fenianos fails to appear for questioning.

The Beirut explosion flattened much of the city's port [File: Hassan Ammar/AP Photo]

The lead judge investigating Lebanon’s massive port explosion last year has issued an arrest warrant for a former government minister who failed to appear for questioning, state media has reported.

Youssef Fenianos, the former public works minister, is one of several former government officials who have declined to appear before investigating judge Tarek Bitar.

The whereabouts of Fenianos are unknown, but he is thought to be in Lebanon. The 57-year-old headed the ministry from 2016 to 2020.

A judicial source confirmed that the warrant was issued on Thursday, the AFP news agency reported.

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 more than 6,000 wounded.

Bitar also summoned the former and current security chiefs. The former prime minister has also refused to appear before the judge.

Hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilisers, had been improperly stored in the port for years. It exploded on August 4, 2020, devastating parts of the capital Beirut.

The Lebanese investigation has been running into major obstacles, including the removal of Bitar’s predecessor on charges he violated the constitution by summoning government officials.

More than a year after the blast, 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 and in an extensive report issued last month, Human Rights Watch said senior officials also knew of the risks posed by the highly explosive material and did nothing to protect the public against it.

Survivors demand UN-backed probe

On Wednesday, more than 140 local and international organisations and survivors of the blast have repeated a call issued earlier urging a UN-backed investigation into the blast to mete out justice.

In their plea, 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 politicised,” the groups said and criticised 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’s legal team argued Thursday that the matter is no longer for Judge Bitar to investigate after parliament opened a review into the charges levelled against legislators and government officials.

The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded and was the most destructive single incident in Lebanon’s troubled history.

Source: News Agencies