Lebanese MPs try to circumvent questioning in port blast probe

Petition calls for the MPs wanted for questioning by an investigating judge, to appear instead before the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers.
Thursday 22/07/2021
Supporters of families who had relatives killed in last year’s massive blast at Beirut’s seaport, hold a placard during a protest in support of legal action near the blast scene, in Beirut, Lebanon. REUTERS
Supporters of families who had relatives killed in last year’s massive blast at Beirut’s seaport, hold a placard during a protest in support of legal action near the blast scene, in Beirut, Lebanon. (REUTERS)

BEIRUT--A number of deputies in the Lebanese parliament are trying to circumvent the judicial investigations into the Beirut port blast, by having the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers  prosecute the three MPs wanted for questioning in the port explosion.

Earlier, Tarek Bitar, the Lebanese judge leading the investigation into last year’s massive explosion at Beirut’s port, rejected the joint request of  parliament’s Bureau and the Administration and Justice Committee, to obtain additional documents relating to MPs Ali Hassan Khalil, Ghazi Zaiter and Nohad al-Machnouk, as a precondition for the lifting of their immunity and their questioning as defendants in the Beirut port explosion.

Confronted with judge Bitar’s position, a number of deputies and parliamentary blocs collected signatures on a petition calling for the prosecution of MPs (who are former ministers) wanted for questioning in the port blast probe, by the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers, based on Law 13 issued in 1990. The petition stipulates that in such a trial of ministers the evidence is to be withdrawn from the judicial investigator and passed to the Supreme Council consisting of ten parliamentarians and eight judges, all of whom have not yet been named.

The parliamentary petition is seen as based on constitutional manoeuvering and political calculations. It drew the ire of human rights groups and the public,  not least from the families of the victims of the port blast and civil society activists, especially after the list of the MPs who signed it was leaked.

The petition publicly rejects the trial of the deputies over the Beirut port explosion before a normal judge-led court and demands that they be tried before the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers.

Its signatories are reported to be from the Amal, Hezbollah, Al-Mustaqbal parliamentary blocs and some independents. Their move sparked a campaign on social media calling for them to withdraw their signatures and describing them as “the nitrate deputies”.

The hashtag #Nawab_Nitrate (in reference to the ammonium nitrate substance that exploded in the port of Beirut) has been trending among popular hashtags in Lebanon.

Activists published pictures of the deputies who signed the petition, along with pictures of the port explosion. They held them responsible for the failure to achieve justice for the victims and denounced what they considered their “obstruction” of the investigation into the disaster.

However, in the face of public pressure, after 26 MPs had signed the petition, the key minimum for it to be submitted to parliament, a number of them began to withdraw their support. Accordingly it is unlikely the petition will now see the light of day.

Under Lebanese law, the petition had to be signed by one-fifth of the parliament’s members, (26 MPs), before it can be submitted it to the speaker of the House of Representatives. There is thereafter the need for two-thirds of the members  (86 deputies) to support the petition.

So far, only 47 deputies are openly backing  the referral of the case to the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers.

The invoking of parliamentary immunity is seen as a barrier to the  accountability hoped for by the families of victims. According to recent leaks, the investigation may be extended to cover more officials and politicians.

The Lebanese parliament has postponed the lifting of immunity of the MPs till the judicial investigator Bitar provides the additional evidence it has demanded. However, Bitar has refused to hand over this evidence, considering that the investigation is confidential. This has prompted some in the parliament to search for new ways to hinder the investigation.

Less than two weeks before the first anniversary of the Beirut port explosion, the investigations has provided nothing new. The judge formerly in charge of the case was changed following political pressure, as well as the continuous attempts to circumvent his enquiries.