Beirut blast: Why has no top official been tried?

STORY: Two years after the Beirut port explosion killed at least 215 people and demolished swathes of the Lebanese capital, no top official has been brought to account.

A judicial probe has been frozen for months.

Angry Lebanese blame the impunity enjoyed by a corrupt and incompetent ruling elite, whose policies have also led to a financial collapse.

Senior politicians, including President Michel Aoun and then prime minister Hassan Diab, knew a deadly cargo of ammonium nitrate had been offloaded in Beirut and was stored at a port warehouse.

Hundreds of tonnes of it blew up on August 4, 2020, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded.

Human Rights Watch said in a report last year that high-level security and government officials, quote, "foresaw the significant threat to life ... and tacitly accepted the risk of deaths occurring."

Ilham al-Bikai lost her son in the blast.

"Even if it takes 10 years, we will go on the streets shouting until the truth about our children comes out, because our children's lives are not cheap. I raised my son with my tears, I spent nights until I saw him a grown-up. I wanted to see him as a groom, I did not want to see them bringing him in a coffin because of the corrupt authorities."

An investigator was appointed who charged three ex-ministers and former premier Diab with negligence in December 2020. Politicians pushed back.

He was removed and judge Tarek Bitar now heads the probe.

But all the current and former officials he has tried to question as suspects have resisted, arguing they have immunity or that he lacks authority. All deny wrongdoing.

Judge Bitar's tussle with the politicians has played out in the courts, in political life and on the streets.

Suspects swamped courts last year with more than two dozen legal cases seeking his removal for alleged bias and "grave mistakes," leading to several probe suspensions.

The investigation has been paralysed since early 2022, when judges retired from a court that must rule on complaints against him before he can continue.

Nizar Saghieh is executive director of The Legal Agenda, an advocacy NGO. He says Lebanese politicians have long been above the law.

"We know Lebanon has long been a country of impunity, a country where a civil war ended and massacres were committed but no one investigated them - many of the perpetrators were in power. So this time we were able to see how things work, how immunity work, how people raise their voices against immunity and how they were trying to bring it down. We also saw how politicians use everything they've got - anger, abuse of power, street action, etcetera - to stop the investigation. And this is what happened."

The ex-ministers who were charged say a special court for presidents and ministers should hear any cases against them.

That court has never held a single official accountable, and the probe would effectively pass into the hands of ruling parties.

Bitar has not pursued members of heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah.

But two of the ex-ministers he wants to question - Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeitar - are Hezbollah allies.

The party campaigned fiercely against Bitar last year. Hezbollah's adversaries have long accused it of controlling the port, which it denies.

Hezbollah has accused the United States, which lists the group as a terrorist organiz ation, of meddling in the probe.