Beirut, Lebanon – The lawyers of a Lebanese former minister have filed a legal request to remove the judge looking into the Beirut port blast investigation over “legitimate suspicion”.
The petition by the former public works minister, Youssef Fenianos, came on Wednesday, a week after Judge Tarek Bitar issued an arrest warrant for Fenianos who refused to turn up for questioning.
In a statement, Fenianos said the issuing of the arrest warrant was “illegal” and accused Bitar of “abnormal behaviour” and “double standards” while conducting the investigation.
“I assure you that I bear my administrative responsibilities,” said Fenianos.
“I feel great pain with the families of the victims as if I am one of them, especially as what they lost cannot be compensated for in this world, but the truth alone can heal the wounds.”
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.
Approximately 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.
Earlier this week, a senior Hezbollah security official also threatened Bitar during an in-person meeting at the judge’s office.
Fenianos is one of a handful of former ministers and senior security officials Bitar charged with criminal negligence in early July, but had refused to appear for questioning.
The others include former premier Hasan Diab, former interior minister Nohad Machnouk, and former public works minister Ghazi Zeiter.
Bitar also filed charges against former army commander General Jean Kahwaji and former head of military intelligence Brigadier-General Kameel Daher, as well as two other retired intelligence generals.
Fenianos’s legal complaint on the grounds of “legitimate suspicion” is similar to the complaint lodged by former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeiter against Judge Bitar’s predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, who charged them in December 2020.
The duo accused Sawan of being unable to conduct a fair investigation because his house was damaged in the blast.
In February 2021, Sawan stepped down from the investigation.
Bitar has been criticised by Lebanon’s governing parties for targeting senior political officials.
On the first anniversary of the blast, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused Bitar of “playing politics”.
Grand Mufti Abdel-Latif Derian also condemned Bitar for subpoenaing former Prime Minister Diab, describing the move as “reprehensible”.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), legal activists and families of the blast victims accused Lebanon’s political officials of obstructing the investigation and fear “total impunity”.
Human Rights Watch Lebanon researcher Aya Majzoub said that the “future of justice” for the country was at stake, adding that political leaders in Lebanon have “escaped accountability” for decades of corruption and other crimes by installing loyalists within the judiciary.
“Judge Bitar has so far refused to operate within the narrow bounds set by the political class, and as such, he is posing a big threat to the culture of impunity that Lebanon’s politicians have enjoyed for far too long,” Majzoub told Al Jazeera.
“Will high-level officials once again escape accountability for their grave crimes, or will Judge Bitar prove that no one is above the law?”