Lebanese judge charges caretaker PM in August port explosion

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FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2020 file photo, outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab, speaks during a press conference after his government was announced, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon. On Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, the Lebanese prosecutor probing this summer's port explosion in Beirut filed charges against Diab, and three former ministers, Lebanon's official news agency said. All four were charged with negligence leading to deaths over the Aug. 4 explosion at Beirut port, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

BEIRUT – 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 that led to the death of hundreds of people, Lebanon’s official news agency said.

The four are the most senior individuals to be indicted so far in the investigation, which is being conducted in secrecy. And though it is too early to predict whether any of the four would end up on trial, the development was significant in Lebanon, where a culture of impunity has prevailed for decades, including among the entrenched political elites.

Judge Fadi Sawwan, the prosecutor responsible for the investigation, 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 six years, with the knowledge of top security officials and politicians who did nothing about it.

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 is a former professor at the American University of Beirut who became prime minister late last year. Although he served as minister of education from 2011-14, he is considered to be an outsider to the political ruling class that has run Lebanon since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

Since the shipment of ammonium nitrates arrived in Lebanon in late 2013, four prime ministers have been in office. It was not clear why Sawwan has singled out Diab, who was prime minister for less than a year among the ex-premiers who have held the post while the nitrates were improperly stored at a port warehouse, a ticking bomb.

Diab received the backing of the Hezbollah group and its allies after Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in the wake of mass antigovernment protests late last year. Diab himself resigned a few days after the blast, which leveled the country's main port and destroyed large parts of the city. He has continued to function in caretaker capacity while efforts to form a new government have floundered amid political disputes.