BEIRUT (AP) – Lebanon’s acting prime minister said on Tuesday he was shocked to learn he was accused of negligence in the August 4 port explosion, saying he had done everything possible during his brief tenure, during which he learned of the existence of dangerous chemicals stored at The Port.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Hassan Diab described being singled out and indicted when others knew more, calling it “evil”. He insisted that the examining magistrate must go through Parliament to question him further, now that he has been charged.
The Lebanese prosecutor investigating last summer’s horrific explosion in the port of Beirut filed charges against Diab and three former ministers earlier this month, accusing them of negligence which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.
The charges caused a political storm in Lebanon and Diab and other ministers refused to appear before the judge for questioning as defendants, calling the charges politically motivated and selective.
Two of the former ministers challenged Judge Fadi Sawwan’s authority, calling for him to be disqualified from the investigation and a new judge appointed. The challenge caused a pause in the investigation which cast doubt on the fate of the investigation into the explosion that killed more than 200 people and destroyed parts of Beirut.
“Questioning me is not a problem, he (the judge) is invited to do so. But being charged is a whole different ball game, ”Diab said.
The catastrophic explosion was caused by the ignition of a large stockpile of ammonium nitrate which – it happened later – had been stored at the port for six years with the knowledge of senior security officials and politicians who have done nothing about it. They include senior security officials, the army command, the president and former prime ministers. The explosion killed more than 200 people and injured thousands, devastating large parts of the capital Beirut.
The challenge of summoning Judge Sawwan is rooted in disparate interpretations of who has the power to question ministers and heads of government. According to the Lebanese constitution, a separate council made up of judges and politicians and set up by parliament is responsible for trying ministers and prime ministers for crimes of high treason, dereliction of duty and violation of the constitution – a body that does not ‘has never been activated by parliament. .
Sawwan’s decision to exercise his discretion in accusing government officials came after he sent a letter and documents to parliament last month, alerting lawmakers to serious suspicions about government officials and asking them to ‘investigate. Lawmakers responded by saying that the documents they received did not show any professional misconduct.
On Tuesday, Diab – who voluntarily gave Sawwan an affidavit in September – challenged him to present any incriminating evidence to Parliament.
Diab said he first discovered the potentially hazardous material at the port of a counselor who heard about it at an informal dinner on June 3. be presented to him within two days.
Diab said it took over a month and a half to complete the case. The first letter he officially received was dated July 22 and he immediately acted with the authorities concerned and scheduled a visit to the port. But he said he canceled after learning the stored chemicals were fertilizers. Ammonium nitrate is very explosive when it breaks down, but it is mainly used in agriculture as a high nitrogen fertilizer.
“I respect the judicial system but I also respect the constitution, which is above all. And as such, if you want to charge me, send your files to parliament and I can be charged there, ”Diab said. He said he did not know why he was chosen from among the former prime ministers who spent more years in power, calling him “staggering” and “evil”.
“Someone who came and fought corruption from day one … someone independent like me, with clean hands like me, I don’t know why they are targeting me that way”, a- he declared.
A former professor at the American University of Beirut, Diab was appointed prime minister a year ago after receiving support from the powerful Hezbollah group and its allies. He resigned following the explosion on August 4, but remains in his post on an interim basis as Lebanese officials failed to agree on a new government.
Diab urged the judge to focus on why the vessel carrying the ammonium nitrate was allowed to enter Lebanon in the first place and who allowed him to stay there for six years. He also said that an FBI investigation into the explosion found it was caused by 500 tons of ammonium nitrate.
“Where did the rest go?” he requested an estimated stock of 2,750 tonnes.
The FBI, which aided Lebanon in the investigation, has not made its findings public and the allegations of missing nitrates could not be independently confirmed by the PA.
Diab, in the interview, called on Lebanese politicians to urgently form a new government to end the country’s economic and financial crisis, which was made worse by the explosion.
“They (the politicians) always behave like there is no problem in the country. … We are in a disaster. No matter who takes which ministry, we all have to work together and forget about political conflicts, ”he said.
Diab has said he hopes a new US administration led by President-elect Joe Biden will help “stir things up” and help the country form a government in a positive way.
Associated Press editor Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed reporting.