BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Lebanese judge leading the investigation into last year’s massive explosion at Beirut’s port issued an arrest warrant Tuesday for a former cabinet minister after he did not show up for questioning, the state-run National News Agency said.
Shortly afterward, the judge was notified that the former minister and another former government member had formally asked a court to replace the judge, who now has to suspend the investigation until a ruling on him comes out.
The developments were the latest twists in the saga of the troubled probe into the massive August 2020 blast at Beirut’s port that killed 215 people, injured thousands and devastated entire neighborhoods of the Lebanese capital.
Judge Tarek Bitar, who is leading the investigation, issued an arrest warrant for Ali Hassan Khalil, Lebanon’s former finance minister and current member of parliament. It wasn’t immediately clear if Khalil would be arrested.
The decision came hours after the head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group escalated his attack on the judge, calling on authorities on Monday to replace Bitar with a “truthful and transparent” investigator.
Khalil, a close Hezbollah ally, was among officials who challenged Bitar in the courts, saying the judge was biased and calling for him to be replaced. He had previously declined to appear for questioning.
Last month, Bitar issued an arrest warrant for former public works minister Youssef Fenianos, who remains at large.
Lebanon is a small nation notorious for corruption where a culture of impunity has prevailed for decades, including among the entrenched political elites.
As a legislator, Khalil has parliamentary immunity but Tuesday’s move by Bitar came as the immunity was briefly lifted for lawmakers until October 19, when parliament goes into session again.
Bitar has charged Khalil and three other former senior government officials with intentional killing and negligence that led to the deaths of scores of people in the port explosion.
Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored in the port for years, detonated in what was the most destructive single incident in Lebanon’s troubled history.
Bitar was appointed in February by a government body to lead the investigation. A court ruled to remove Bitar’s predecessor after he faced similar accusations of bias from former officials.