Beirut blast judge issues arrest warrant for ex-minister

A monument demanding justice stands before grain silos that were gutted in the, August 2020, Beirut port explosion. (AP Photo)
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Updated 16 September 2021

Beirut blast judge issues arrest warrant for ex-minister

  • Judge Tarek Bitar issued an arrest warrant for the former public works and transportation minister Youssef Fenianos, after Fenianos failed to appear for questioning
  • Bitar has also demanded that parliament lift the immunity of three MPs — Nohad Machnouk, Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil — in addition to a number of security officials he is keen to question

BEIRUT: The judge leading the investigation into the August 2020 Beirut Port blast issued an arrest warrant on Thursday for the former public works and transportation minister Youssef Fenianos, after Fenianos failed to appear for questioning.

Judge Tarek Bitar has also subpoenaed former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who was the premier at the time of the port blast, and has demanded that parliament lift the immunity of three MPs — Nohad Machnouk, Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil — in addition to a number of security officials he is keen to question.

Diab stepped down as caretaker prime minister and left the country when Prime Minister Najib Mikati took office earlier this month. Social media was abuzz with the news of Diab’s departure, with many speculating that he would not return for his scheduled questioning on September 20. Diab reportedly travelled to the US to visit his children, whom he had not seen for two years, before receiving Bitar’s subpoena, which was issued on August 26.

A judicial source said that the discriminatory Attorney General, Judge Ghassan al-Khoury — the judicial public prosecutor in the investigation, referred the subpoena against Diab to the General Directorate of the Internal Security Forces for implementation.

Bitar issued another subpoena against Diab on Sept. 14, this time including the address of his residence in Beirut. If Diab fails to return before Monday morning, then the judge would have the right to issue a warrant for his arrest.

In response to the arrest warrant for Fenianos, who is affiliated with the Marada movement but is not currently an MP and therefore does not have immunity, the head of the Marada movement, Suleiman Frangieh, tweeted: “We reiterate that we stand by Fenianos, who has the right to defend himself.”

Bitar is facing pressure from all sides of the political spectrum. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused the judge of “playing a political game.” Bitar’s predecessor in the case, Judge Fadi Sawan, was relieved of his duties as a result of political pressure when two of the former ministers he had charged with negligence for the disaster had their request for his removal from his post granted by a court.

Many see the subpoena against Diab as a measure of how seriously the new government is taking the investigation. If Diab is allowed to continue to evade questioning from Bitar, and if the newly formed government’s parliament refuses to lift ex-ministers’ immunity, then there seems little hope of justice for the victims of the blast and their families.

Those families took to the streets again on Thursday to apply more pressure on the political establishment to stop what they perceive as its interference in the judiciary’s investigation. They blocked the road in front of the Palace of Justice in Beirut and stressed the need to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Mothers of some of the victims carried their children’s pictures and banners that referenced Mikati’s emotional speech when he discussed how people were suffering in Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis. “If your eyes watered when you thought about the mothers who were suffering, then stand with us, the mothers of the victims. Help Judge Bitar bring us justice,” the banners read.

Others held banners with blunter statements, including: “We want our rights and we will not let our children’s blood go to waste.”

William Noun, whose brother Joe was one of the 215 people killed by the explosion, which left thousands injured and several residential neighborhoods completely destroyed, told Arab News: “Diab left the country because he is running away from justice. He knows which party blew up the ammonium nitrate. The same party that prevented him from going to the port (when he got word of the ammonium nitrate stored there) before the explosion facilitated his departure.”

The families of the victims said in a joint statement: “The Public Prosecution, which is supposed to be on our side, is taking suspicious actions; it released suspects without having the powers to do so and began leaking information about the investigation.

“Stop confronting us with politics. We do not understand your policies. What we do understand is that you killed us. The Beirut Port blast was on purpose. Someone is responsible and they should be held accountable,” the statement continued.

Local media was so preoccupied with the arrest warrant for Fenianos, that news of Syrian vehicles loaded with Iranian diesel entering Lebanese territory went almost unnoticed.

The convoy — estimated to consist of around 80 tankers — entered through illegal Hezbollah crossings on the outskirts of Hermel. Hezbollah followers reportedly gathered on the road to Baalbek to greet it, and the cargo was emptied into tanks belonging to Al-Amana Fuel Co., which is currently subject to US sanctions.


Aboul Gheit: Iran seeks to control Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab

Updated 05 December 2021

Aboul Gheit: Iran seeks to control Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab

  • Aboul Gheit said that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would trigger an arms race in the region

CAIRO: The Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Ahmed Aboul Gheit has said that Iran aims to extend its control over the Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab, either directly or through militias it funds.

During his participation in the seventh Rome-Mediterranean Dialogue, held in the Italian capital with the participation of senior officials, experts and economists from countries bordering the shores of the Mediterranean, he pointed to attacks carried out by Iran in the summer of 2019, as well as to the continuing threat posed by the Houthis to navigation in the Red Sea.

The secretary-general added that the stability of navigation in these strategic straits, especially in the transportation of petroleum products, represented a fundamental backbone of the global economy, and that maintaining freedom of navigation without threat was a global priority and not only for the Arab countries bordering it.

He said that Iran’s behavior in the region, and its apparent tendency to dominate and interfere with Arab countries, was behind the difficulty in establishing a security system in the Gulf based on cooperation and the common welfare of the people.

He said that several initiatives had been put forward on this, but the main problem remained a lack of confidence due to Iranian policies that represented a threat to its neighbors.

Aboul Gheit said that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would trigger an arms race in the region. He hoped negotiations would succeed in dissuading Iran from achieving this goal to avoid a deterioration in the current security situation.

He said it was difficult to address the Iranian nuclear program without acknowledging that there was already a nuclear power in the region in Israel, especially in light of its insistence on destroying the two-state solution and wasting opportunities for its implementation.


Explosions heard near Syria-Iraq border, rebels deny blasts inside US base

Updated 05 December 2021

Explosions heard near Syria-Iraq border, rebels deny blasts inside US base

  • US-backed rebel group Maghawir Al-Thawra say the blasts were part of joint ground and air exercises that began earlier this week
  • The garrison was first set up when Daesh fighters controlled eastern Syria bordering Iraq

DUBAI/AMMAN: Syrian state television reported on Sunday that multiple explosions had been heard inside a US base in the Al-Tanf region near the Iraqi border.
The report was denied, however, by a commander in the US-backed rebel group Maghawir Al-Thawra, whose several hundred fighters work with US troops at the Tanf base, who said the blasts were part of joint ground and air exercises that began earlier this week and did not come from inside the base.
The garrison is located in a strategic area near Syria’s Tanf border crossing with Iraq at the crossroad of a main Baghdad-Damascus highway, Tehran’s main arms supply route by land to Syria and Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia.
Several drones attacked the outskirts of the base last October but there were no American casualties, according to US officials.
While it is not common for attacks on the US troops at the outpost, Iranian-backed forces have frequently attacked American troops with drones and rockets in eastern Syria and Iraq. .
Russia and the Syrian government have repeatedly called on Washington to pull its troops from the Tanf base, where it has declared a 55 km (35 mile)-radius “deconfliction zone.”
The garrison was first set up when Daesh fighters controlled eastern Syria bordering Iraq, but since the militants were driven out Tanf has assumed a role as part of a US strategy to contain Iran’s military build-up in eastern Syria.


Israel urges hard line against Iran at nuclear talks

Updated 05 December 2021

Israel urges hard line against Iran at nuclear talks

  • Israel has been watching with concern as world powers sit down with Iran to jump-start talks on the tattered nuclear deal
  • Talks in Vienna aimed at re-imposing curbs on Iran’s nuclear program restarted last week after a more than five-month hiatus

TEL AVIV: Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday urged world powers to take a hard line against Iran in negotiations to curb the country’s nuclear program, as his top defense and intelligence officials headed to Washington amid the flailing talks.
Israel has been watching with concern as world powers sit down with Iran to jump-start talks on the tattered nuclear deal. Iran last week struck its own hard line as talks resumed in Vienna, suggesting everything discussed in previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated. Iran also isn’t slowing down the advances in its atomic program, further raising the stakes in the talks, which are crucial to cooling years of tensions boiling in the wider Mideast.
Talks in Vienna aimed at re-imposing curbs on Iran’s nuclear program restarted last week after a more than five-month hiatus.
Israel has long opposed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, saying it didn’t go far enough to halt the country’s nuclear program and doesn’t address Iran’s military involvement in countries bordering Israel.
“I call on every country negotiating with Iran in Vienna to take a strong line and make it clear to Iran that they cannot enrich uranium and negotiate at the same time,” Bennett told a meeting of his Cabinet. “Iran must begin to pay a price for its violations.”
Israel is not a party to the negotiations but it has made a point of keeping up lines of communication with its European and American allies during the talks, which are set to resume this week.
Israeli spy chief David Barnea headed to Washington late Saturday on a previously unannounced trip and Defense Minister Benny Gantz leaves Wednesday for meetings with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was in London and Paris last week to discuss the talks with Israel’s European allies.


Israeli police questioned on Palestinian attacker’s shooting

Updated 05 December 2021

Israeli police questioned on Palestinian attacker’s shooting

  • A widely circulated video shot by a bystander appeared to show an officer from Israel’s paramilitary Border Police shooting the attacker
  • Israel says its security forces make every effort to avoid harming civilians and that it investigates alleged abuses

TEL AVIV, Israel: Israel’s Justice Ministry said Sunday that two police officers were brought in for questioning following the shooting death of a Palestinian who had stabbed an Israeli man in east Jerusalem.
Israeli police released surveillance video in which the attacker can be seen Saturday stabbing the ultra-Orthodox Jewish man and then trying to stab a Border Police officer before being shot and falling to the ground. Police identified the attacker as a 25-year-old from Salfit, in the occupied West Bank. Police could later be seen carrying the body away on a stretcher.
A widely circulated video shot by a bystander appeared to show an officer from Israel’s paramilitary Border Police shooting the attacker when he was already lying on the ground, and another appeared to show police with guns drawn preventing medics from reaching him, prompting calls for an investigation into possible excessive use of force.
The shooting drew comparisons to a 2016 incident in which an Israeli soldier was caught on camera shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker who was lying on the ground.
The Justice Ministry’s police investigations unit said the police officers were questioned shortly after the incident and released without conditions.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett released a statement in support of the officers. Other leaders also defended their actions.
“It’s not clear if the terrorist maybe has an explosive belt. All sorts of things could happen,” Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees the police, told Israeli Army Radio Sunday. “They acted correctly.”
The incident happened near Damascus Gate just outside Jerusalem’s Old City, a tense and crowded area that is often the scene of demonstrations and clashes.
The Old City is in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war along with the West Bank and Gaza. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and considers the entire city its capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state, to include the West Bank and Gaza.
There have been dozens of attacks in recent years in and around the Old City, nearly all carried out by individual Palestinians with no known links to armed groups.
Palestinians and Israeli rights groups say security forces sometimes use excessive force in response to attacks, killing suspected assailants who could have been arrested or who posed no immediate threat to security forces.
Rights groups also say Israel rarely holds members of its security forces accountable for the deadly shootings of Palestinians. Investigations often end with no charges or lenient sentences, and in many cases witnesses are not summoned for questioning.
Israel says its security forces make every effort to avoid harming civilians and that it investigates alleged abuses.
In the widely publicized 2016 case, Israeli soldier Elor Azaria was caught on camera shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker who was lying on the ground. Azaria later served two-thirds of a 14-month sentence after being convicted of reckless manslaughter.
His case sharply divided Israelis. The military pushed for his prosecution, saying he violated its code of ethics, while many Israelis, particularly on the nationalist right, defended his actions.
In a more recent case, a Border Police officer was charged with reckless manslaughter in the deadly shooting of an autistic Palestinian man in Jerusalem’s Old City last year.
The indictment came just over a year after the shooting of Eyad Hallaq, whose family has criticized Israel’s investigation into the killing and called for much tougher charges. The shooting has drawn comparisons to the police killing of George Floyd in the United States.


Iran stonewalling JCPOA talks to advance nuclear program, say US officials

Updated 04 December 2021

Iran stonewalling JCPOA talks to advance nuclear program, say US officials

  • Officials: Iran was preparing to double enriched uranium capacity and nuclear capabilities during past five-and-a-half months

CHICAGO: Senior US State Department officials accused Iran of not taking negotiations on limiting nuclear technology seriously and using the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as an excuse to expand its nuclear program.

The officials conceded in a teleconference with news outlets including Arab News Saturday that although President Joe Biden views Iran’s conduct as “not acceptable,” the administration is focused on reviving talks rather than pursuing tougher measures or an expansion of sanctions.

During the past five-and-a-half months, they said, while telling JCPOA negotiators in Vienna that they are “getting ready,” Iran was instead preparing to double their enriched uranium capacity and nuclear capabilities.

“We have been waiting patiently for five-and-a-half months. The Iranian government said that it needed time to resume the talks on a mutual return to compliance of the JCPOA, and I think what we have seen over the last week or so is what ‘getting ready’ meant for them,” one official said.

“It meant continuing to accelerate their nuclear program in particularly provocative ways, and their latest provocation as reported by the IAEA Wednesday, while we were still in the middle of talks, was to prepare for the doubling of their production capacity of 20 percent enriched uranium at Fordo.

“What ‘getting ready’ meant was to continue stonewall the IAEA despite efforts by all of the P5+1, (and) constructive efforts to find a way forward between Director General Grossy and Iran.”

The P5+1 refers to the UN Security Council’s five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, plus Germany.

Iran is seeking to “walk back” all past compromises during the unproductive six rounds of talks, while asking for more concessions, he said.

“In other (words), not come back with a serious proposal about how we could resume mutual compliance with the JCPOA but raising issues that go beyond the JCPOA,” the official said.

Although US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has said in the past that Biden will not “accept the situation in which Iran accelerates its nuclear program and slow walks its nuclear diplomacy,” the State Department outlined no plans to step up pressure to force Iran to take the talks seriously.

He said he is unsure when JCPOA talks in Vienna will resume, adding: “The date of those talks, the date of that resumption, matters far less to us than whether Iran will come with a serious attitude prepared to negotiate seriously. If they are, they will find a very serious counterpart on the other side, which is the United States, but we will have to wait and see if they take that position. But so far, what we have seen in Vienna in their nuclear program and in their dealings with the IAEA unfortunately suggest the opposite.”

The State Department official brushed aside questions regarding China, which has violated the sanctions by purchasing Iranian crude oil.

“If Iran kills the JCPOA, then other sanctions would come into effect,” he said, declining to detail those actions.

Asked if Biden needed to “calm” the concerns of Israel, which has a huge cache of nuclear weapons, or if there are concerns Israel might respond with a military strike to any Iranian increase in activity, the official said: “We don’t view our job as to calm Israel down ... Our job is to work together towards our common objective. 

“Israel is sovereign country and makes its own decisions, but we think we are stronger when we act together.”