A Lebanese court on Thursday dismissed a judge who had charged top politicians with negligence over last year's Beirut port explosion, infuriating
families of victims who said it showed that the state would never hold powerful men to account.
Judge Fadi Sawan had led the investigation into the largest non-nuclear blast in history. In December, he charged three ex-ministers and the outgoing prime minister with negligence.
Two hundred people died in the August 4, 2020 blast when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, stored unsafely for years, detonated at the capital's port. Thousands were injured and entire neighbourhoods destroyed.
On Thursday, the Lebanese Court of Cassation called for a new investigating judge to be appointed to lead the probe, nearly six months after it had started.
The court decided to take Sawan off the case after a request from two of the former ministers he charged.
A copy of the decision seen by Reuters cited "legitimate suspicion" over Sawan's neutrality, partly because his house was damaged in the blast which devastated much of the Lebanese capital.
The move will likely delay an investigation that has faced political pushback and has yet to yield any results.
'A mockery of justice'
Rights activists immediately condemned Thursday's ruling as the latest example of an entrenched political class placing itself above the law.
Sawan's removal "makes a mockery of justice and is an insult to the victims of the blast", Human Rights Watch researcher Aya Majzoub said.
The ruling showed "politicians are not subject to the rule of law", she added.
Following the announcement dozens of family members of people killed in the port blast rallied outside the main Beirut court house.
"Today you have killed us all over again! The investigation is over. We're back at square one," cried out one of the protesters, while others carried pictures of the victims.
Hariri, Hezbollah opposed indictment of ministers
On December 10, Sawan had issued charges against caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers for "negligence and causing death to hundreds", triggering outrage from politicians.
Among those charged were former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and ex-public works minister Ghazi Zaiter, who accused Sawan of violating the constitution on the grounds of immunity and moved to have him removed from the case.
'Charade needs to end'
Lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh said he needed to see the full court decision, but feared the worst.
"By refusing to be held accountable, the ministers and political class are drawing a red line in the investigation," he told AFP.
He said it was a typical pattern in Lebanon that "prevents any justice from being achieved".
Majzoub said: "More than six months later, we are back to square one."
"This charade needs to end ... We need an international, independent investigation as soon as possible."
Not a single politician detained
The probe into Lebanon's worst peace-time disaster has led to the detention of 25 people, from maintenance workers to the port's customs director, but not a single politician.
It has focused mainly on who was to blame for the fertiliser being left to languish unsafely at the port for more than six years, not how the ammonium nitrate ended up in Beirut.
On Monday, however, Sawan requested information from Lebanese security forces on three Syrian businessman thought to be behind the procurement of the fertiliser shipment that arrived on a dilapidated ship from Georgia in 2013.
Diab resigned after the port explosion, but the deeply divided political class has failed to agree on a new cabinet line-up.
Pressure from former colonial power France, whose President Emmanuel Macron has visited twice since the explosion, has failed to end the deadlock.
Lebanon desperately needs the government to launch reforms and unlock international aid to lift the country out of its worst financial crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
The value of the local currency has plummeted by more than 80 percent and around half the population live in poverty.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)