Sawwan Resumes Probe in Port Blast Case, Summons Qahwaji

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Judicial investigator Judge Fadi Sawwan has resumed his investigations into the August 4 catastrophic explosion at Beirut’s port.

State-run National News Agency said Sawwan has set dates for questioning a number of suspects and witnesses this week and next week.

The Associated Press and al-Jadeed TV meanwhile reported that Sawwan will hear the testimony of former army chief General Jean Qahwaji on Tuesday.

Judicial officials told the AP that Qahwaji will be questioned as a witness.

The names of the others to be questioned have not been released.

The Army Command, when Qahwaji was in charge, was one of the entities that exchanged letters with the customs department on what to do with the ammonium nitrate as it was kept in a warehouse at the port for six years until it blew up.

In April 2016, the army said in a letter that it didn’t need the material, adding that if a private explosive company in Lebanon also didn’t need it, the material should be exported at the expense of the ship owner who brought it to Lebanon.

Sawwan’s resumption of investigations coincides with the easing of a coronavirus lockdown in the country.

Described as one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and one of Lebanon’s most traumatic experiences, the massive explosion ripped through Beirut’s port and disfigured swathes of the Lebanese capital, killing 211 people and wounding around 6,500 others.

In a rare move, Sawwan charged three former ministers and the current prime minister with negligence, triggering a political storm.

The prime minister refused to appear for questioning, calling it “diabolic” to single him out for charges. Two of the ministers challenged the judge and asked Lebanon’s highest court to replace him in a move that brought the probe to a halt since Dec. 17.

The caretaker interior minister has said he won’t ask security forces to implement arrest warrants targeting political figures.

In early January, the Court of Cassation ruled that Sawwan can resume his investigation while it reviews calls to replace him.

Sawwan’s decision to delay the resumption of his work until this week had raised concerns among victims’ families that he may have caved to political pressure.

Dozens of family members gathered outside his house last week, urging him to restart the probe.

“We want to know if they are not letting him,” Kayan Tleis, whose 40-year-old-brother was killed in the blast, said in reference to politicians. “This should not be like every time.”

In a joint statement, France and the United States said Thursday they expect “rapid results” and that the “Lebanese justice system must work transparently, removed from any political interference.”

At least 25 people have been held since August under the investigating judge’s powers of unlimited pre-trial detention. He only questioned them once, according to Human Rights Watch. Most are port staff, including the head of the port authority, the top customs official and a maintenance engineer, and all face the same litany of charges no matter what their position, said Aya Majzoub, HRW’s Lebanon researcher.

Senior political faction leaders have publicly questioned the course of Sawwan’s investigation or hinted he may be covering up for their rivals.

Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah questioned Sawwan’s focus on domestic negligence. He urged him to share reports by military, security and foreign agencies.

“Was there something military in the port that led to this explosion? Why not tell the people the truth?” said Nasrallah. Hizbullah has denied claims it stored explosives at the port.

Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat meanwhile pointed at the Syrian regime, suggesting it imported the explosives through Lebanon because its ports were in the line of fire at the height of Syria’s civil war in 2013.

Some described the 60-year-old Sawwan as “brave,” even “suicidal” for taking the post that could endanger his career or his life.

Throughout Lebanon’s history, judges have been threatened, intimidated and even killed. Gunmen sprayed four judges with bullets in court in 1999, killing them on the spot during a murder and drug trafficking trial. In 1977, a judge investigating the killing of a Druze leader was kidnapped in his own car and his house hit with a rocket-propelled grenade.

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