Beirut, Lebanon Dozens of Lebanese MPs pledged to support a parliamentary proposal allowing a special judicial body to investigate and prosecute interim Prime Minister Hassan Diab and four former ministers over the Beirut port explosion last year, but legal activists and families of the blast victims criticized the decision. As an attempt to protect officials from accountability.
The Beirut port explosion on August 4 last year killed more than 200 people, injured about 6,500, and flattened part of the Lebanese capital. Many officials blame hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate at the port for triggering and causing the explosion.
A judicial source told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that at least 50 deputies initially signed off on a proposal to try officials in the Supreme Council, a judicial body tasked with impeachment matters.
In addition to Diab, the source said that the four former ministers included in the proposal are the former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, the former Ministers of Public Works Ghazi Zeit and Youssef Finianos, and the former Minister of Interior Nouhad Al-Mashnouq. Khalil, Zuaiter and Machnouk are currently deputies in Parliament.
The source said that the council, consisting of eight senior judges in addition to seven deputies appointed by their peers, “has never tried a minister, president or deputy in its history.” Critics see the move as an attempt to undermine an already faltering judicial investigation.
Earlier in July, Judge Tariq Bitar, who is leading the judicial investigation into the blast, requested that the immunity of several senior politicians and former and current security officials be lifted so that he can prosecute them on suspicion of criminal negligence, as well as murder with the possibility of the crime bent on the explosion.
However, if the former ministers were summoned to the Supreme Council, Bitar would not be able to bring charges against them.
Lawmakers supporting the proposal say it is in line with the Lebanese constitution.
The judicial source said the support of 61 deputies is required to pass the motion by a simple majority. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri did not announce the date of the next parliament session.
The source expects parliament to likely vote on referring the issue to the Supreme Council, but said lawmakers may block the next step, which requires two-thirds of parliament members to vote to choose the Supreme Council to recall them.
“Obviously, this is an attempt to nullify the investigation,” the source said.
Relatives of the blast victims were angry at the news.
“We completely reject and condemn this cover-up of the crime of the century,” Mahdi Zahreddine, 21, whose brother Imad was killed in the explosion, told Al-Jazeera.
“I think Judge Tariq Bitar will not be silent about this.”
The Legal Agenda for Local Oversight said it had identified 30 deputies who supported the proposal, calling them a “list of shame,” and said the move would protect accused officials from prosecution.
“The Legal Agenda considers this a fraudulent step to smuggle suspects away from the judicial investigator, Tariq Bitar,” the note said.
Future Movement MP Muhammad Hajjar, who signed the memo, told Al Jazeera that they simply follow Lebanese law, adding that they always prefer an international investigation.
“Lebanese law is clear and no one is above the constitution,” he said.
Since the news was received, MPs Salim Saadeh, Sami Fatfat, Diem Jamali, Adnan Traboulsi and Nicholas Nahas withdrew their names from the lawsuit.
Other lawmakers who signed the proposal did not respond to Al Jazeera’s calls.
Calls for an international investigation
The parliamentary proposal is the latest hurdle that Judge Bitar has faced since the legal measures against current and former senior political and security officials were announced earlier this month.
Caretaker Interior Minister Mohamed Fahmy rejected Bitar’s request to interrogate Public Security Chief Major General Abbas Ibrahim.
Prior to Bitar’s appointment, the Lebanese Court of Cassation removed Judge Fadi Sawan in February from leading the investigation into the devastating explosion, after Khalil and Zuaiter filed legal complaints against him.
They said that Sawan could not be neutral because his house was damaged in the explosion.
Rights groups say the latest parliamentary proposal justifies their calls for an international investigation, arguing that the country’s political parties will continue to obstruct domestic investigations.
“As long as the current regime remains in Lebanon, the hope that we will see justice through the local process is very slim,” Aya Majzoub, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera.
“We need an international investigation that is free from the constraints of local Lebanese politics and builds on the work that Judge Bitar has already done.”