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Judicial official said the judge leading Lebanese inquiry into last year’s port explosion has renewed his summons to two former ministers for questioning

BEIRUT – The judge in charge of the Lebanese investigation into the massive explosion of a port last year renewed his summons to two former ministers on Tuesday for questioning, a judicial official said.

Judge Tarek Bitar’s decision came despite strong criticism from the country’s powerful Hezbollah group over the direction of the long-standing investigation.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Bitar of politicizing the investigation and targeting some officials and not others. He called on the government to withdraw Bitar.

Bitar has been in office since February, after his predecessor was removed from his post by a court ruling following court challenges from senior government officials who were also summoned.

Nasrallah’s accusations marked a major escalation in rhetoric targeting Bitar and were followed by protests in the capital Beirut last week by supporters of Hezbollah and its ally Amal against the judge. The protests escalated into violence unprecedented in Lebanon for years: seven people were killed during five hours of clashes between supporters of the two Shiite groups and armed men accused of being allies with the right-wing Lebanese Christian Forces. Lebanon.

His critics held Bitar responsible for the bloodshed.

But on Tuesday, the judge summoned two former government ministers, including a Hezbollah ally, for questioning about the port explosion.

Bitar had issued arrest warrants against the two ex-ministers, but with parliamentary sessions resuming Tuesday after a recess, ministers demanded parliamentary immunity, which had protected them from previous questioning.

The two former ministers, Ghazi Zeitar and Nohad Machnouk, are also legislators. They were summoned to appear on October 29, said the judicial official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the press.

Former ministers’ legal teams argue that with parliamentary immunity in place, officials are exempt from appearing before a judge. But according to the statutes of parliament, Bitar can renew his summons because he requested their questioning for the first time in a period when parliament was on recess – at a time when the two men had briefly lost their immunity.

Legal experts called it the “battle for immunities” as the defendants and the senior judge searched for loopholes in the law for each of them.

The result was interruptions in the investigation, which focused on what caused the explosion of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive fertilizer often used to make bombs, stored in the port for years.

Independent media and rights groups have revealed that senior government officials were aware of the material stored in the port but did nothing to store it properly or to warn the public of its presence and danger.

More than 215 people died and more than 6,000 were injured in the blast that devastated parts of the city of Beirut.

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ABC News

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