BEIRUT, Lebanon — A court in Lebanon on Thursday removed the judge appointed to investigate a huge explosion in the Beirut port last year, adding a delay to the country’s sluggish efforts to determine what happened and ensure accountability.
The removal of the judge, Fadi Sawan, was the outcome of a complaint filed by two former ministers whom he had accused of criminal negligence. The court based its decision in part on damage to Judge Sawan’s own home from the port explosion, which it said had raised questions about his impartiality.
The Aug. 4 blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and sent a pressure wave ripping through Beirut that killed 200 people, wounded 6,000 and left billions of dollars in damage.
The blast happened when whatever was left of 2,750 tons of hazardous chemicals that had been unloaded into the port in 2014 blew up.
Many Lebanese saw the blast, and revelations that Lebanese officials had ignored multiple warnings about the chemicals’ danger, as emblematic of the poor governance and corruption that have bedeviled the Mediterranean country for decades.
Few expect Lebanon, where powerful political elites often band together to enrich themselves and fend off scrutiny, will ever reach an official conclusion on what caused the blast and who is to blame.
Judge Sawan had spent months compiling documents, interviewing witnesses and requesting information from foreign governments to try to determine how the chemicals ended up in Beirut and why they remained in an unguarded hangar in the port with other hazardous materials for so long.
Powerful figures — including former prime ministers, the speaker of Parliament and the head of Hezbollah, the militant group and political party — claimed that the newly charged men had legal immunity and accused Judge Sawan of having overstepped his bounds.
Two of the former ministers filed to have him removed from the case, which led to the ruling on Thursday by the country’s top court.
Judge Sawan had no immediate comment on the ruling. But critics quickly assailed it as a significant setback.
The ruling “makes a mockery of justice and is an insult to the victims of the blast,” Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher with Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter. “More than 6 months later, we are back to square one.”
Her organization had raised questions about Judge Sawan’s investigation and she wrote that there could have been legitimate reasons to challenge him, but not for his having filed charges against political figures.
Thursday’s ruling, she wrote, made clear to whoever took up the case next that “red lines” had been set: “You cannot charge politicians.”
It was unclear how long it would take for a new investigator to be appointed.
The acting justice minister must appoint a new investigating judge, who must then be approved by a body of senior judges. Only then will the new investigator take up the case.
Progress on the case has been slowed by a surge in Covid-19 infections across Lebanon this year that led the government to impose strict lockdowns and a 24-hour curfew that has lasted for weeks.
The slow pace of the investigation has angered relatives of those who died in the blast, and some of them joined a protest outside the government’s headquarters on Thursday evening, where they blocked the road, burned tires and vowed to keep pushing until some form of justice was achieved.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.