‘Political targeting’: Hezbollah chief denounces blast judge

Lebanon’s leaders have frequently criticised Judge Bitar after he questioned some of the most senior politicians about the deadly Beirut explosion.

LEBANON-POLITICS-HEZBOLLAH An image grab taken from Hezbollah''s al-Manar TV on November 11, 2019 shows Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon''s powerful Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah
Hassan Nasrallah, head of Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement, accused the investigating judge of not being honest [File: Al-Manar TV via AFP]

Beirut, Lebanon – Hezbollah’s leader on Monday accused the judge leading the Beirut port explosion investigation of being biased and politicised. He told victims of the deadly blast “you won’t get the truth”.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Judge Tarek Bitar was using “the blood of the victims to serve political interests”. He previously accused Bitar of “playing politics” on the anniversary of the blast in August.

“I say to the families of the victims, ‘if you think that this judge will get you to the truth – he won’t’,” Nasrallah said in a televised address. “We want an honest and transparent judge.”

Nasrallah called for Lebanon’s Higher Judicial Council, the country’s highest judicial authority, to convene. It can hold a vote to remove Bitar not just from the case, but from the right to work as a judge.

“Going after specific agencies, specific ministers, and a specific prime minister is clearly political targeting,” Nasrallah said, questioning why Bitar had not reached out to other former ministers who served terms during the six years the explosive material was unsafely stored at the Port of Beirut.

Lebanon’s leaders have frequently criticised Bitar over the past five months, after he questioned ex-Prime Minister Hasan Diab, ex-Public Works Ministers Youssef Finianos and Ghazi Zeiter, ex-Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, and ex-Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk.

They accused Bitar of being biased and lodged several legal complaints to the judiciary to remove him. But their attempts to remove him have been unsuccessful.

A senior Hezbollah security official reportedly threatened Bitar during an in-person meeting at the judge’s office last month. The matter is still under investigation.

Bitar scheduled interrogations with Khalil on Tuesday, followed by Machnouk and Zeiter on Wednesday. He set up a date to question Diab later this month, as the former prime minister is currently in the United States.

He has also repeatedly tried to summon the General Security Directorate Chief Major-General Abbas Ibrahim and State Security Head Major-General Tony Saliba.

‘Clear documentation and evidence’

More than 200 people were killed in the Beirut blast on August 4, 2020, after a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored unsafely at the port for years, detonated. The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, and the most destructive single incident in Lebanon’s troubled history.

About 6,500 people were injured and entire neighbourhoods in the country’s capital were destroyed.

Nizar Saghieh, a legal expert and founder of the watchdog group Legal Agenda, said Nasrallah effectively demanded Bitar’s removal in his televised address. Saghieh disagreed that Bitar’s probe is politically motivated.

“He is summoning people with clear documentation and evidence,” Saghieh told Al Jazeera. “Diab for example is the only prime minister with clear documents [of his knowledge] about the ammonium nitrate.”

Saghieh said Bitar has been put in an “abnormal situation”, adding he believes the country’s leadership has systematically criticised him.

“What judge in the world can take on the most difficult case in their country’s history while getting attacked left and right?”

Source: Al Jazeera