Analysis: How Judge Bitar’s probe shook Lebanon leaders

Experts say judge leading investigation into last year’s explosion at Beirut’s port rattled the country simply by challenging systemic impunity.

Supporters of Lebanese groups Hezbollah and Amal take part in a protest against Tarek Bitar, the lead judge of the port blast investigation [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – When the Lebanese government announced more than a year ago that the probe into the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port would be conducted domestically, few expected that senior officials would be charged.

But even fewer expected that the lead investigator, Judge Tarek Bitar, could rattle the country’s entrenched leadership, which for decades has reigned with impunity and routinely quashed legal investigations that may hold it accountable.

More than 200 people were killed and some 6,500 wounded when hundreds of tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate fertiliser stored in the port for years ignited on August 4, 2020. The explosion wrecked large parts of Beirut and continues to haunt Lebanon, as the country struggles with an economic meltdown that plunged three-quarters of its population into poverty. No officials have been convicted yet.

Bitar’s persistence to pursue senior political and security officials, despite their attempts to delegitimise and remove him, has put the country on notice.

“Judge Bitar is giving the Lebanese hope in the domestic judiciary after many people have totally given up on justice and accountability locally,” Aya Majzoub, Human Rights Watch Lebanon researcher, told Al Jazeera. “He is single-handedly facing off with the entire political establishment that is implicated in the Beirut blast.”

On Thursday, a protest in Beirut by Hezbollah and Amal supporters calling for Bitar’s removal turned into a bloodbath when unidentified snipers fired at the crowd from rooftops, triggering a gun battle that last for more than four hours. Seven civilians and combatants died.

Families of the explosion victims, activists and human rights organisations continue to back Bitar. However, several political and religious leaders from across the country’s sectarian spectrum continue to call for his removal and accuse him of bias, accusations dismissed by legal experts and rights groups.

‘Too close to home’

Bitar was appointed to lead the investigation in February following the dismissal of his predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, who had shockingly charged former ministers Ali Hasan Khalil, Ghazi Zeiter, Youssef Finianos, and Lebanon’s then-caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab with criminal negligence.

Over the past seven months, Bitar has continued to pursue the same individuals and also charged former minister Nohad Machnouk. He has also repeatedly requested to summon two senior security officials, General Security chief Major-General Abbas Ibrahim and State Security head Major-General Tony Saliba – but the Ministry of Interior and Higher Defence Council would reject the requests.

The charged politicians have declined to show up to the interrogations. They have also continuously tried to remove the judge by filing legal complaints, which have sometimes temporarily suspended the investigation. Though the judiciary has so far dismissed these complaints, legal experts say this has been a tactic to stall the investigation, while major political parties have now also begun calling for Bitar’s removal.

The most vociferous has been Hezbollah, even though Bitar has not charged anyone from the party. Just three days before Thursday’s clashes, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused the judge of politically targeting officials and called for an “honest and transparent judge”. Last month, a senior Hezbollah security official reportedly threatened Judge Bitar in his office.

“It’s clear that Bitar has hit too close to home, but we don’t know why Hezbollah, in particular, is leading this campaign against him,” Majzoub said. “They keep saying they’re singled out, but none of the officials Bitar has called for investigation are Hezbollah officials.”

Setting a precedent

Lebanon’s troubled history is littered with conflict, including a vicious 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, followed by decades of assassinations and sporadic armed clashes. But the perpetrators of even the gravest crimes were never held to account. Many say this is an extension of rampant corruption in Lebanon, where the judiciary is not independent of the government.

Now, political leaders have accused Bitar and the judiciary of being politicised.

Families and experts told Al Jazeera that Bitar set a new precedent in the port explosion investigation and shocked Lebanon’s leadership.

Bachar El-Halabi, a political analyst, said Bitar “decided to go as far as possible”.

“Sawan’s removal also shocked [the public] and garnered support in the public sphere which transcended sectarian fault lines,” El-Halabi noted. “It’s not just about ending the impunity that continues to reign supreme in Lebanon, but a fear of any kind of repercussion of change that could come through the judiciary.”

Two years ago, mass nationwide protests demanded accountability for rampant corruption and financial mismanagement, as well as an end to decades of rule at the hands of the country’s sectarian leadership. A common call among protesters at the time was an independent judiciary to investigate corrupt politicians and business people.

“Bitar has also started a wider discussion around the country around [legal] immunities, and the really corrupt political and legal system that essentially shields these high-level officials from accountability,” Majzoub said.

“He brought this issue to the forefront of public debate in Lebanon, and put a lot of pressure to reform this system designed by the powerful to protect the powerful.”

Source: Al Jazeera