Court allows Judge Bitar to resume Beirut blast investigation

An appeals court has rejected a request by former ministers to remove Judge Bitar from the investigation.

Human Rights Watch, legal activists and families of the blast victims have accused Lebanon’s political elite of obstructing the investigation into the Beirut blast which took place in August 2020 [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]

Beirut, Lebanon – The Beirut Appeals Court has rejected requests to remove Judge Tarek Bitar from the Beirut Port blast investigation, which were presented by former ministers charged in the investigation.

The investigation into the port blast that rocked the Lebanese capital was suspended seven days ago after Judge Bitar continued to pursue ex-ministers and other high-ranking political and security officials.

Former ministers Nouhad Machnouk, Ghazi Zeiter and Ali Hasan Khalil accused the judge of being biased.

“The court considered that it was not responsible to take on such a request,” an official told Al Jazeera. “Bitar can now carry on with the investigation.”

Ibrahim Hoteit, spokesperson for the families of the blast’s victims, expressed satisfaction with the decision but said he remained cautious.

“God would never allow injustice and oppression,” Hoteit told Al Jazeera.

“But our joy must be cautious because they [officials] are vile, and [we must] watch out for any traps they might want us to fall into.”

Demanding Bitar’s reinstatement

Human rights organisations and families of the victims have vocally backed Bitar. Last Wednesday, some 300 people protested at the Beirut Justice Palace, condemning charged politicians and demanding Bitar’s reinstatement.

The trio of ministers was fined 800,000 Lebanese pounds ($45) for the claim, on the grounds that it was arbitrary.

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.

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

The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions recorded and was the most destructive single incident in the country’s troubled history.

No officials have yet been convicted.

Bitar was appointed last February to continue the investigation after two of the former ministers, Khalil and Zeiter, removed Bitar’s predecessor Judge Fadi Sawan through a similar legal complaint.

They argued that he could not conduct the investigation fairly because his home was damaged in the explosion.

Human Rights Watch, legal activists and families of the blast victims have accused Lebanon’s political elite of obstructing the investigation and said they fear “total impunity” for officials involved.

Some have called for an international probe, which they believe would be more technically effective and would prevent constant obstruction.

UN experts have echoed these demands, and the European Parliament recently passed a new resolution on Lebanon calling for the same.

Source: Al Jazeera