Judge unexpectedly resumes frozen Beirut blast inquiry

Judge unexpectedly resumes frozen Beirut blast inquiry

BEIRUT--The judge investigating the 2020 Beirut port explosion has unexpectedly resumed his inquiry and charged top security officials, three judicial officials said on Monday, more than a year after his probe was frozen by political resistance.

Judge Tarek Bitar's efforts to interrogate top officials over the explosion that killed 220 people and shattered Beirut have been derailed by push-back from factions including the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Bitar has charged Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon's domestic intelligence agency, and Major General Tony Saliba, head of another security body, in connection with the blast, the officials said, without specifying the charges. He also charged former army commander Jean Kahwaji.
Ibrahim declined to comment on reports he had been charged. Saliba and Kahwaji could not immediately be reached for comment. All have denied wrongdoing.
The Aug. 4, 2020 explosion was caused by hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate unloaded at the port in 2013. No senior official has been held to account.
Victims' relatives welcomed the resumption of the inquiry. "It was a beautiful shock but we want to be sure that no one stands in his way," said William Noun, who lost his brother in the explosion.
Judicial sources said Bitar had ordered the release of five people detained since shortly after the blast -- former port officials Michel Nahoul, Shafiq Merhi and Sami Hussein; a welder of Syrian origin, Ahmad Rajab; and a contractor, Salim Shebli.
Bitar met French judges visiting Beirut last week as part of a French investigation into the explosion that killed two French nationals. He was unable to share documents with them because the investigation was frozen.
Politicians that Bitar had sought to question, including Hezbollah allies, made dozens of legal challenges disputing his right to interrogate them and saying he had overstepped his powers. The investigation was paralysed in early 2022 by the retirement of judges from a court that must rule on several such complaints against Bitar before he can continue. The court has been awaiting the appointment of new judges to resume its work - a step authorities have not taken.
Bitar resumed his work on the basis of a legal interpretation challenging the reasons for its suspension, the judicial sources said.

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