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Lebanon's top court suspends arrest warrants for 2 former cabinet ministers in port blast case

BEIRUT (AP) — A judge at Lebanon’s highest court suspended the arrest warrants against two former cabinet ministers in the 2020 Beirut port blast case, officials said Tuesday.

The explosion was one of the world’s largest non-nuclear blasts ever recorded.

Judge Sabbouh Suleiman of the Court of Cassation lifted the warrants against former public works minister, Youssef Fenianos, as well as former finance minister and current member of parliament Ali Hassan Khalil, judicial officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

In 2021, Judge Tarek Bitar, who has led the investigation into the explosion, issued warrants against Fenianos and Khalil. Fenianos in turn asked for Bitar's removal over “legitimate suspicion” of how he handled his case. The judge accused Fenianos, Khlail and two other former senior government officials of intentional killing and negligence that led to the deaths of more than 200 people in the explosion.

Some politicians and security officials have also been asking for Bitar's removal as anger and criticism by families of the victims and rights groups have grown with the investigation being stalled for over a year.

Despite arrest warrants issued for cabinet ministers and heads of security agencies, no one has so far been detained amid political interference in the work of the judiciary.

The United States Treasury in September 2020 slapped sanctions on Fenianos and Khalil, accusing them of corruption and providing “material support” to the militant Hezbollah group. Bitar had also charged and pursued Khalil in the port blast probe with homicide and criminal negligence.

The Aug. 2020 blast killed at least 218 people and more than 6,000 wounded, according to an Associated Press tally. It also devastated large swaths of Beirut and caused billions of dollars in damages.

More than three years later, there are still no answers to what triggered the explosion, and no one has been held accountable. Rights groups and local media revealed that most state officials knew of the presence of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored there for years, in the port.