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Judge orders release of 7 detained over Lebanon port blast

June 23, 2021 GMT
FILE -- In this Aug. 4, 2020 file photo, an injured man walks at the explosion scene that hit the seaport, in Beirut Lebanon. A Lebanese prosecutor Wednesday, June 23, 2021, ordered the release of seven people who were detained after last year’s deadly massive blast at Beirut’s port, the state media reported. The official said the head of the customs department, his predecessor and the port’s director general at the time will remain in custody. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
FILE -- In this Aug. 4, 2020 file photo, an injured man walks at the explosion scene that hit the seaport, in Beirut Lebanon. A Lebanese prosecutor Wednesday, June 23, 2021, ordered the release of seven people who were detained after last year’s deadly massive blast at Beirut’s port, the state media reported. The official said the head of the customs department, his predecessor and the port’s director general at the time will remain in custody. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
FILE -- In this Aug. 4, 2020 file photo, an injured man walks at the explosion scene that hit the seaport, in Beirut Lebanon. A Lebanese prosecutor Wednesday, June 23, 2021, ordered the release of seven people who were detained after last year’s deadly massive blast at Beirut’s port, the state media reported. The official said the head of the customs department, his predecessor and the port’s director general at the time will remain in custody. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese prosecutor Wednesday ordered the release of seven people who were detained after last year’s deadly massive blast at Beirut’s port, state media reported.

The decision by Ghassan Khoury came a day after the Lebanese judge leading the investigation into the explosion requested the release of 13 people who were detained after the August catastrophe, one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history.

The National News Agency said Khoury only approved the release of seven persons, most of them junior port employees. It added that the request to release senior employees was rejected.

NNA did not say when they will be released.

Nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored in the port for years, exploded on Aug. 4, killing 211 people, wounding more than 6,000 and damaging entire neighborhoods nearby.

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A judicial official said six men and one woman will be released but he did not say when. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The official said the head of the customs department, his predecessor and the port’s director general at the time will remain in custody.

In April, six people including security officers who had been detained for months, were released. They included an officer who had written a detailed warning to top officials prior to the explosion about the dangers of the material stored at the port.

After the blast, 25 people were detained but with those released in April and the seven who will be set free, 12 will remain in detention.

Lebanon’s code of criminal procedure gives the judicial investigator the authority to hold suspects in pre-trial detention indefinitely. But this violates their due process rights, said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. She added that under international law, anyone held in pre-trial detention has a right to a speedy trial or release.

“Those detained in connection with the Beirut blast have spent almost a year in prison, without knowing the evidence or the charges against them, and with no prospects of a trial in the near future,” said Majzoub. “Their release addresses some of the due process concerns that HRW had with regards to the investigation.”

Judge Tarek Bitar was named to lead the investigation in February after his predecessor was removed following legal challenges by two former Cabinet ministers he had accused of negligence.

The Beirut port explosion has been one of the most traumatic national experiences the Lebanese have faced. Families of those killed are skeptical that any investigation into the explosion can be transparent and independent in a country where a culture of impunity has prevailed for decades.

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Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.