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In Lebanon, Judge Suspends Inquiry Into Beirut Port Explosion

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Lebanon, a judge has temporarily suspended an investigation into the explosion at the port of Beirut. The blast was in August. And at the time, politicians promised to bring justice. But NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports those very officials are now placing limits on the inquiry.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The shockwave from the explosion lifted buildings across the capital, smashing glass and collapsing walls. The blast killed 200 people, injured thousands and caused billions of dollars in damage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HASSAN DIAB: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: In this press conference in the days after the blast, Hassan Diab, the country's then-prime minister, promised to hold accountable those responsible for the storage of the nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate that exploded. He resigned, but stays on in a caretaker role. Now, more than four months on, it's Diab himself and three other former ministers who are charged with gross negligence. But they're refusing to show up in court for questioning.

Diab maintains he didn't do anything wrong. It's unclear exactly who knew about multiple warnings the government received about the threat the ammonium nitrate posed. Either way, Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer who heads the right's watchdog, the Legal Agenda, says their refusal to cooperate sets a dangerous precedent.

NIZAR SAGHIEH: Recently, I mean, only when we discovered a bigger concern, which is about immunity of ministers and deputies.

SHERLOCK: Diab and other ministers say they're protected by a clause in the Constitution that gives them immunity from these types of charges. So the lead prosecutor has paused the investigation now to decide on that issue. Saghieh says if this widened interpretation of the Constitution were applied, it would essentially make it impossible to prosecute any minister for anything.

SAGHIEH: So that's why I understand very well what's happening now is not only having a negative effect on the blast investigation, but it might also affect all the other investigations.

SHERLOCK: Like investigations into the political and economic corruption that's driving the country into poverty.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTS)

SHERLOCK: Lebanese have been protesting on and off for a year, asking for politicians to be held accountable.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTS)

SHERLOCK: But for now, the same politicians remain in power and even holding them accountable for an explosion that ravaged the capital and shocked the world seems out of reach. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.