The Lebanese prosecutor probing last summer’s port explosion in Beirut filed charges on Thursday against the caretaker prime minister and three former ministers, accusing them of negligence leading to the death of hundreds of people, Lebanon’s official news agency said.
Judge Fadi Sawwan filed the charges against Hassan Diab and former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, as well as Ghazi Zeiter and Youssef Fenianos, both former ministers of public works.
All four were charged with carelessness and negligence leading to death over the Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut’s port, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. The explosion was caused by the ignition of a large stockpile of explosive material that had been stored at the port for years, with the knowledge of top security officials and politicians.
The four are the most senior individuals to be indicted so far in the probe, which is being conducted in secrecy. Anger has been building up over the slow investigation, lack of answers and the fact that no senior officials have been indicted.
About 30 other security officials and port and customs officials have been detained in the probe so far.
Diab, a former professor at the American University of Beirut who became prime minister late last year, received the backing of the influential Hezbollah group and its allies after prime minister Saad Hariri resigned in the wake of anti-government protests last year.
Diab resigned a few days after the August blast but has continued to function in a caretaker capacity while efforts to form a new government have floundered amid political disputes.
Commenting on Thursday’s development, Diab said his conscience is clear and that he is “confident that his hands are clean and that he handled the Beirut port blast file in a responsible and transparent manner.”
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In a statement issued by his office later Thursday, Diab said he is “surprised by this targeting that goes beyond the person to the position. Hassan Diab will not permit the position of the prime ministry to be targeted by anyone.”
Youssef Lahoud, a legal representative to 1,500 families affected by the blast, described Judge Sawwan’s move as an “essential step toward revealing the complete truth.”
Lahoud, who also represents the Beirut Bar Association working on behalf of the families, said an indictment doesn’t mean incrimination and that it is the five-member judicial council that would issue verdicts.
The blast is considered to be among the largest non-nuclear explosions ever to be recorded.
Documents surfaced soon after the explosion showing that at least 10 times over the past six years, authorities from Lebanon’s customs, military, security agencies and judiciary raised the alarm that a massive stockpile of potentially dangerous chemicals was being kept with almost no safeguard at the port in the heart of Beirut.
President Michel Aoun, in office since 2016, said he was first told of the stockpile nearly three weeks before the explosion and immediately ordered military and security agencies to do “what was needed.” But he suggested his responsibility ended there, saying he had no authority over the port and that previous governments had been told of its presence.
Since the material arrived in Lebanon in late 2013, four prime ministers have been in office.
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Former prime ministers Hariri, Najib Mikati and Tammam Salam have reportedly said that they were not aware of the existence of the material at the port. Diab has said he was only informed of the presence of the explosives days earlier and planned to visit the site. He told reporters earlier this year that he cancelled his visit to the port after he was told that the material was fertilizer.
“There is a list to be made of all those who knew and should all be held responsible,” said Elie Hasrouty, whose father died in the port explosion. “Their job is not to refer [the matter] to others, but to stop that bomb from going off and to protect people.”
Investigators probing the blast had so far focused on personnel at the Port of Beirut. Judge Sawwan said he has set next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as dates for interrogating the four government officials as defendants.
Both Khalil and Fenanios were sanctioned by the U.S. in September this year, the first two officials to be subject to sanctions outside of the militant Hezbollah group, which has a role in the Lebanese government.