Beirut blast probe suspended after request to remove judge

Lebanese political leadership has accused Judge Tarek Bitar of bias after charging senior officials.

A drone image shows a general view of the site of the August 4, 2020 explosion in Beirut's port [File: Imad Creidi/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – The Beirut port blast inquiry has been suspended after accused former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk formally notified the investigator of the request to dismiss him from the case.

As per Lebanese law, Judge Tarek Bitar was forced to halt the investigation.

He had already filed new requests to the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities to summon General Security Chief Major-General Abbas Ibrahim and State Security Chief Major-General Tony Saliba on Monday, and had to cancel the scheduled interrogations with two brigadier-generals.

The judiciary will determine whether Bitar will continue leading the inquiry.

Machnouk, a sitting parliamentarian, as well as ex-Public Works Minister Youssef Finianos, requested to remove  Bitar from the blast investigation last week, accusing the judge of bias and misconduct.

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.

Bitar under fire

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

Judge Bitar has come under fire from Lebanese leaders in recent months after continuously going after senior political and security officials, including ex-ministers, former Prime Minister Hasan Diab, and senior security officials.

After filing his legal complaint against Bitar, Finianos accused the judge of “abnormal behaviour” and “double standards” while conducting the investigation.

Later on Monday, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati said the suspension of the probe was a “judicial matter”, telling local broadcaster LBCI he did not think Lebanon “could withstand the second judge being removed”.

Last week, a senior Hezbollah security official also threatened Bitar during an in-person meeting at the judge’s office.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused Bitar of “playing politics” on the first anniversary of the blast, while Grand Mufti Abdel-Latif Derian also condemned Bitar for subpoenaing Diab, describing the move as “reprehensible”.

The legal complaint on the grounds of “legitimate suspicion” is similar to complaints 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, Sawan stepped down from the investigation.

Mahdi Zahreldine, a 21 year-old who lost his brother Imad in the blast, said that Bitar’s suspension is only evidence that the judge is the right person to lead the blast probe.

“This is evidence that there is a political attack against Judge Bitar, because he’s going after political officials,” Zahreldine told Al Jazeera. “Halting the investigation means halting accountability for the country.”

Lebanese legal expert and founder of watchdog group Legal Agenda Nizar Saghieh anticipates that the suspension could last for about 10 days. If Bitar isn’t removed, he says it would also be an attempt for Machnouk to buy time before Parliament is back in session next month.

“When Parliament is officially back in session, he would have his immunity back as an MP,” Saghieh told Al Jazeera, describing the case as “abusive”.  “They are once again showing Bitar that they can make his life very difficult.”

Source: Al Jazeera