Lebanese ex-minister allied with Hezbollah requests port blast judge be replaced

In this August 5, 2020 file photo, a drone picture shows the destruction after an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP/Hussein Malla)
In this August 5, 2020 file photo, a drone picture shows the destruction after an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon. (AP/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT — A former Lebanese government minister has asked the country’s top court to remove the lead judge investigating last year’s massive explosion in Beirut’s port because of allegedly “legitimate suspicion” over his handling of the case, state media reports.

The development is the latest in a year-long saga surrounding the investigation into the explosion, which plunged Lebanon into another political crisis and accelerated an already unprecedented economic meltdown.

The country’s government resigned after the August 4, 2020 explosion, and bickering political parties only this month agreed on a new government.

Also, months into the probe, the lead judge running the investigation was removed by the Court of Cassation after similar charges were filed against him by senior government officials.

The petition today by the former public works minister, Youssef Fenianos, comes a week after Judge Tarek Bitar issued an arrest warrant for him after he failed to appear in court for questioning.

It’s not clear whether the Court of Cassation will take up Fenianos’ lawsuit, and if it does, it will have to examine the case and then decide whether to dismiss or accept the request.

The judge has accused 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 explosion. Over 6,000 were injured in the massive blast that also devastated a large section of Beirut.

Fenianos is a senior official with the Christian Marada Movement, a close ally of Lebanon’s powerful terrorist group Hezbollah. He says in a statement, carried by the state-run Lebanese News Agency, that his petition was motivated by “concern for justice,” and accuses an unnamed party of wanting “to blame me as a former minister of public works” for the blast.

However, the petition is harshly criticized by human rights activists and angers the families of the victims, who claim that it is another ploy to “prevent the truth.”

“It is outrageous that Lebanese politicians think they can just replace a judge every time he tries to hold them accountable until one is appointed that is to their liking,” says Aya Majzoub, a Lebanon researcher from Human Rights Watch.

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