Lebanese Parliament Tells Judge he Can’t Subpoena PM, Security Chief Warns of Crisis

BEIRUT (Reuters) -
A man shields from the sun with an umbrella as he waits to get fuel from a gas station in Jal el-Dib, Lebanon, August 20, 2021. (REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)

The Lebanese parliament on Friday told the judge who is investigating last year’s Beirut port explosion that he had exceeded his powers by issuing a subpoena for caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab after he failed to show up for questioning.

Judge Tarek Bitar, leading the inquiry into the huge explosion, issued requests in July to question Diab and other top officials, including former ministers, who were charged by his predecessor with negligence over the blast.

All have denied any wrongdoing.

In a letter to the prosecutor, the secretary general of parliament said the subpoena fell outside Bitar’s jurisdiction.

The explosion on Aug. 4, 2020 was caused by a massive quantity of ammonium nitrate left unsafely at the port for years. It killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and devastated swathes of capital.

Many people in Lebanon are furious that no senior officials have been brought to account.

The inquiry has repeatedly stalled with the first lead judge removed in February after a court granted the request of two of the former ministers he had charged with negligence for the disaster.

Influential factions have accused Bitar of bias. The powerful Shi’ite group Hezbollah this month accused him of playing politics.

Sunni politicians, including former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, have objected to the investigator’s moves against Diab, saying the post of prime minister – reserved for a Sunni in the Lebanese sectarian system – has been singled out.

Some MPs have been pressing for the probe into senior officials to be referred to a special council that hears cases against former presidents and ministers. Critics fear this will effectively derail the judicial inquiry.

Meanwhile, the head of one of Lebanon’s most powerful security agencies ordered his officers to stand firm in the face of a national crisis that could be protracted, warning of the chaos that would ensue if the state collapsed.

Major General Abbas Ibrahim, in a message to General Security staff received by Reuters on Friday, said state institutions had been undermined by “the great collapse”.

He was referring to a financial crisis that has gripped Lebanon for two years and plumbed new depths this month as supplies of imported fuel ran out, forcing even essential services to scale back or shut down and sparking numerous security incidents.

The meltdown has deepened international concerns about Lebanon, a country pieced back together after a 1975-90 civil war and still deeply riven by sectarian and factional rivalries.

Ibrahim noted the impact of the crisis on personnel at General Security, an intelligence and security agency whose responsibilities include control of Lebanon’s border crossings.

“The crisis that Lebanon is going through may be prolonged. Your duty is steadfastness and standing as a barrier to protect your country and your people.” he told staff.

Were the state to fall it would fall on everyone “and everyone will be in the eye of chaos and in the line of tension,” he said.

Ibrahim also noted the crisis’ impact on other security agencies and on the nation in general.

The U.N. secretary general on Thursday called on Lebanese leaders to form a new government urgently – something they have failed to do for a year during whch the currency has collapsed by more than 90% and poverty has soared.