The Lebanese judge investigating the deadly 2020 Beirut port explosion has unexpectedly resumed his inquiry, after a 13-month suspension due to political resistance to his attempts to interrogate top officials.
The move by Judge Tarek Bitar was reported on Monday by Lebanese media and several news agencies, who cited judicial officials. Bitar has issued new charges against eight senior and mid-ranking officials, setting dates for their questioning, the Reuters news agency reported, citing a judicial source.
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Bitar also ordered the release of five people detained since shortly after the blast – former port officials Michel Nahoul, Shafiq Merhi and Sami Hussein; a welder of Syrian origin, Ahmad Rajab; and a contractor, Salim Shebli.
The probe into the explosion that killed 218 people and damaged large areas of Beirut had been derailed since December 2021 by legal challenges as well as resistance from factions.
Politicians who Bitar sought to question, including Hezbollah allies, made dozens of legal challenges disputing his right to interrogate them and saying he had overstepped his powers.
The blast on August 4, 2020, one of history’s largest non-nuclear explosions, was caused by hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been left unloaded at the port in 2013, but no senior official has been held to account.
Despite the surprise decision, Bitar continues to face immense pressure, which lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh said there was “no doubt” would persist “to halt his work”.
“Bitar is waging a battle against the policy of impunity” in Lebanon, Saghieh said.
In February 2021, Bitar’s predecessor as the lead judge was removed from the case after he had charged high-level politicians.
Parliament has refused to lift immunity granted to lawmakers, and Bitar’s requests to interrogate top security officials have been turned down.
Senior politicians Bitar sought to interrogate included members of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement, an important Hezbollah ally, along with Hassan Diab – prime minister at the time of the blast – and top security official Major-General Abbas Ibrahim.
All of them, including former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, have denied wrongdoing, and some say they have immunity from prosecution.
The interior ministry has also failed to execute arrest warrants issued by Bitar, further undermining his quest for accountability.
An anti-Bitar protest called by Hezbollah and its allies in October 2021 escalated into deadly violence.
The Lebanese judiciary, where appointments depend largely on political backing, has long been prone to political influence.
Many families of the blast victims, human rights organisations, and legal activists continue to back Bitar, saying he has set a precedent for accountability and justice in Lebanon.