BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s top prosecutor Wednesday ordered all suspects detained in the investigation into the deadly 2020 port blast in Beirut released, a lawyer for two detainees and judicial officials said.
The move by chief prosecutor Ghassan Oweidat is another blow to the investigation, which has stalled for years. The probe has threatened to rattle Lebanon’s ruling elite, which is rife with corruption and mismanagement and has helped push the country into an unprecedented economic meltdown.
The decision came after Judge Tarek Bitar on Monday resumed the investigation into the devastating port blast, following a 13-month halt over legal challenges raised by politicians accused in the probe — including the chief prosecutor.
Seventeen detainees have been held for years in pre-trial detention after the massive port blast on Aug. 4, 2020. Hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a substance used in fertilizers, detonated at Beirut Port, killing 218 people, injuring over 6,000 and damaging large parts of the Lebanese capital.
Lawyer Sakher El Hachem, who represents two of the detainees, told The Associated Press that they received confirmation of the decision after inquiring to the judiciary, and that his clients would be released Wednesday.
The judicial officials added that Ouweidat, who defied Bitar’s decision to resume the paralyzed investigation, will press charges against him. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Ouweidat did not immediately respond to calls from the AP seeking comment.
Judge Bitar is the second investigator to lead the probe into the port blast, and has charged over a dozen senior political, security, port and security officials.
On Monday, Bitar ordered the release of five of the 17 detainees in the case and charged eight officials, among them top intelligence officials Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim and Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba, as well as Oweidat.
The judge also summoned at least 14 politicians and judicial, security and customs officials for questioning in February. Senior officials have repeatedly refused to show up for questioning since the start of the probe.
Bitar took his post following the removal in February 2021 of Judge Fadi Sawwan over complaints of bias by two Cabinet ministers. If he is also removed, it could be the final blow to the investigation.
Lebanon’s political leadership have accused Bitar without evidence of being biased in his investigation, with some demanding his removal.
Associated Press writers Abby Sewell and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.