Explained: How Hezbollah built a drug empire via its ‘narcoterrorist strategy’

Hezbollah is accused of exploiting the disarray in Syria by producing drugs in the war-torn country before exporting them for financial gain. Counter-narcotics agencies have recently foiled several smuggling operations. (AFP)
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Hezbollah is accused of exploiting the disarray in Syria by producing drugs in the war-torn country before exporting them for financial gain. Counter-narcotics agencies have recently foiled several smuggling operations. (AFP)
Supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah movement drive in a convoy in Kfar Kila on the Lebanese border with Israel on Oct. 25, 2019. (Photo by Ali Dia / AFP)
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Supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah movement drive in a convoy in Kfar Kila on the Lebanese border with Israel on Oct. 25, 2019. (Photo by Ali Dia / AFP)
Lebanese Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah is cheered by his supporters as he speaks through a giant screen in Beirut's southern suburb. (AFP file photo)
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Lebanese Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah is cheered by his supporters as he speaks through a giant screen in Beirut's southern suburb. (AFP file photo)
A Saudi anti-narcotics officer arranges a display of Captagon pills and pomegranates shipped from Lebanon. (SPA file photo)
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A Saudi anti-narcotics officer arranges a display of Captagon pills and pomegranates shipped from Lebanon. (SPA file photo)
Captagon pills are exposed from a crushed pomegranate fruit that was part of a fruit shipment from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia. (SPA file photo);
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Captagon pills are exposed from a crushed pomegranate fruit that was part of a fruit shipment from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia. (SPA file photo);
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Updated 03 May 2021

Explained: How Hezbollah built a drug empire via its ‘narcoterrorist strategy’

Explained: How Hezbollah built a drug empire via its ‘narcoterrorist strategy’
  • Discovery of amphetamines in two consignments has compelled Kingdom to ban import of fruit and vegetables from Lebanon
  • The pills may have originated in Syria, where drug production exploded during the war in areas under Assad regime control

DUBAI: Lebanese fruits and vegetables are no longer welcome in Saudi Arabia after the Kingdom’s vigilant port authorities foiled an attempt to smuggle narcotics inside pomegranates.

Last month, Jeddah Islamic Port’s customs officers seized more than 5 million Captagon pills expertly hidden in a pomegranate consignment from Lebanon. Separately, amphetamine pills stashed in a pomegranate shipment from Lebanon were seized in Dammam’s King Abdulaziz Port.

The Kingdom responded to the incident by banning the import and transit of fruits and vegetables coming from Lebanon.

Waleed Al-Bukhari, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Lebanon, disclosed that there had been attempts to smuggle more than 600 million pills from Lebanon during the past six years.

Deploring the economic impact of the drug bust and import ban, Michel Moawad, a Lebanese politician who resigned from parliament in protest over the Aug. 4, 2020, Beirut blast, said that farmers and legitimate importers are “today paying the price because of Captagon smugglers.”

“What are we gaining by exporting missiles, militias and drugs?” he said. “What are our interests when we are hostile to Arabs and the international community, when we go fight in Yemen and other places?”

When Moawad demanded that Lebanon’s “soil must remain totally sovereign, without security strongholds, illegal weapons, missiles, military training camps for Houthis and no Captagon factories,” he did not have to explicitly name Hezbollah.

The failed attempt to smuggle the amphetamine pills into Saudi Arabia is most likely linked to the Iran-aligned Shiite group with an active military wing, an unnamed source told the Independent Persian.

The source pointed to Hezbollah’s reputed association with the smuggling of drugs, including Captagon pills manufactured in Syria, a charge the group strenuously denies.

The source added that Hezbollah, by virtue of its authority over both “legal and illegal” border checkpoints between Syria and Lebanon, has unchecked control over all drug-related operations.

Hezbollah officials and politicians have yet to comment on the accusations.




Captagon pills recovered by saudi anti-narcotics officers from a pomegranate shipment from Lebanon are put on display. (SPA)

Lebanese security officials have arrested four people so far on suspicion of being connected with the seized cargo. Local news media reports speculated that the pomegranates came from Syria via either the Al-Masnaa border checkpoint or the northern border crossing of Al-Aboudeyye.

After the certificate of origin was changed from Syrian to Lebanese, the consignment was shipped to Saudi Arabia through Beirut’s port, which lacks scanning devices for detecting drugs. The Independent Persian cited the source as saying “the Captagon was produced in Syria, transported to Beirut then consigned to the Kingdom.”

Earlier in April, Greek authorities seized more than four tons of cannabis hidden in a shipment of dessert-making machines heading from Lebanon to Slovakia in the country’s main port of Piraeus, following a tip from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Greece’s authorities said that the street value of the drugs was estimated at $4 million and that Saudi Arabia’s drug enforcement agency assisted them in the case.




Supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah movement drive in a convoy in Kfar Kila on the Lebanese border with Israel on Oct. 25, 2019. (Photo by Ali Dia / AFP)

In January, the BBC aired a documentary that showed Italian police burning 85 million amphetamine pills, weighing 14 tons, that had been seized in June 2020. Italy’s financial crimes police said that the contraband came from the Syrian port of Latakia.

The origin of the contraband was initially thought to be Daesh but turned out to be Syria, according to the BBC’s documentary, which alleged that the Syrian regime and its ally, Hezbollah, are deep into the drug trade as a major source of funding.

The size of the haul indicated that the amphetamine pills were manufactured on a very large scale in proper factories, something that was evidently beyond the ability of Daesh given the loss of most of its territory. That left areas under the control of Syrian President Bashar Assad as the likely source of the pills.

The BBC’s report mentioned, however, that Captagon is produced illegally in Lebanon. The Italian authorities did not publicly announce a possible manufacturer of the pills but confirmed that they came from Latakia.

Illegal drug production is believed to have exploded in Syria during the civil war, emerging as a source of much-needed income for the Assad regime. The ruling clique and its foreign allies have used the proceeds from drug trafficking to evade sanctions imposed by the West.




Narcotics like Captagon pills and hashish are considered key sources of income for both Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. (AFP)

Amphetamine in Captagon is also known for its fear-inhibiting and stimulating effects, which have proved useful during protracted firefights in war-torn areas in the Middle East.

In the past few years, authorities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Jordan, among other countries, have seized enormous quantities of Captagon, often in shipments originating in Syria.

In a televised address in January, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah said that accusations about its involvement in amphetamine production had “no credibility.”

“Our position on drugs, of all kinds, is (clear). It’s religiously banned to manufacture, sell, buy, smuggle and consume. In some cases, the punishment could even be execution, according to Sharia laws,” he said.

However, US and European drugs agencies are convinced that Hezbollah profits from the drug trade. Europol, a European law enforcement agency, issued a report in 2020 cautioning that Hezbollah members were using European cities as a base for trading in “drugs and diamonds” and to launder the profits.

INNUMBERS

  • 10,100 - Hashish packets seized on Syria-Jordan border in 2020.
  • 4.1 million - Captagon pills seized on Syria-Jordan border in 2020.
  • $4 million - Market value of drugs seized by Greece with Saudi help in April.
  • $24 million - Lebanon’s annual fruit & vegetable trade with KSA until the ban.
  • 85 million - Amphetamine pills seized in Italy in June 2020.

In 2018, the US State Department named Hezbollah among the top five global criminal organizations. Reports indicate that Hezbollah’s criminal operations have increased of late in response to Iranian directives to generate income as part of its efforts to dodge US sanctions.

For their part, police in Israel have accused Hezbollah of smuggling hashish into the country.

Lebanon is known to be one of the world’s top producers of cannabis, which is widely cultivated in areas considered strongholds of Hezbollah, notably Baalbek and Hermel.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Last year, the US State Department and Washington’s intelligence community said that there was ample evidence to support claims linking Hezbollah to criminal activities, including drug trafficking, in South America and Europe.

Since 2009, many Lebanese have been sanctioned by the US Treasury for their connection to organized crime, involving drug trafficking and money laundering. Many of those sanctioned were linked to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has built strong connections with the tri-border area of Paraguay-Argentina-Brazil in South America, home to more than 5 million people of Lebanese origin. Local contacts are believed to facilitate and conceal Hezbollah’s drug-trafficking, money-laundering and terrorist-financing operations in this area.

Antoine Kanaan, editor in chief of Lebanon Law Review, says that there is little doubt that Hezbollah was behind the Captagon found in the consignment of pomegranates that reached Jeddah.

He said that pomegranate is not even commercially produced in Lebanon, adding that it is a secondary fruit crop whose cultivation is "restricted to plots of land as small as private orchards and gardens.




Pomegranates are among Lebanon's major agricultural export to Saudi Arabia. (SPA photo)

By contrast, Syria is well known for its pomegranate production, especially in areas such as Daraa, he told Arab News.

“That means that the pomegranates that went from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia originated in Syria,” said Kanaan, who believes that the Captagon was inserted into the fruits in Lebanon.

The amount of Captagon involved and the ingenuity of the plot confirm Hezbollah’s involvement, or at least consent and profit-sharing, according to Kanaan, who further noted that consensus governs everything in Lebanon, even drugs.

“I believe Hezbollah is the number one Captagon supplier in the region and there’s no way an independent Lebanese trader, or even the Syrian government, would have dared pull this off without involving Hezbollah,” he said.

As to why the drugs were sent to Saudi Arabia, Kanaan said: “It is possible but unlikely that they were headed for (Iran-backed Houthi) fighters in Yemen.”




To sustain its paramilitary force, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement export drugs to countries it considers non-allies, such as Saudi Arabia. (AFP file photo)

Brig. Gen. Adel Machmouchi, a former chief of antinarcotics department at Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, said that the drug bust in Jeddah has exposed Lebanon as one of the countries that does not cooperate with international drug-enforcement bodies.

In a TV interview over the weekend, he suggested that the Lebanese ministries and security bodies concerned should have “better and closer control” over areas — in Bekaa Valley and northern Lebanon — where illegal farming and production of drugs takes place.

He said that the government should transform those illegal businesses into legitimate, productive projects.

Machmouchi said that punishments “are not harsh enough to curtail crimes of producing, trafficking and smuggling drugs,” and should be made harsher to act as a deterrent.

He claimed there are about 20 factories used to produce Captagon pills in Lebanon. “Lebanese antinarcotics bodies should (join forces) with counterparts in Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries to be able to combat this crime and halt the process of using Lebanon as a launchpad to smuggle drugs,” Machmouchi said.


Iran’s former central bank chief gets 10-year jail term in $160 million currency fraud

Iran’s former central bank chief gets 10-year jail term in $160 million currency fraud
Updated 11 sec ago

Iran’s former central bank chief gets 10-year jail term in $160 million currency fraud

Iran’s former central bank chief gets 10-year jail term in $160 million currency fraud
  • Besides violating the currency system, Valliollah Seif also had a role in smuggling foreign currency

TEHRAN/JEDDAH: The former governor of Iran’s central bank was sentenced on Saturday to 10 years’ imprisonment for fraud, corruption and smuggling several million dollars in foreign currency.

Valiollah Seif, 69, headed the monetary authority under former President Hassan Rouahni from 2013 until he was dismissed in 2018, and is the first Iranian central bank governor to be indicted. He remains free pending an appeal.

In 2018, the US Treasury Department placed Seif under sanctions for helping transfer millions of dollars to Hezbollah.

Ahmad Araghchi, who was Seif’s deputy from 2017 to 2018, was sentenced to eight years in jail on the same charges. A third senior figure at the central bank, Rassoul Sajad, received a 13-year sentence for illegal foreign currency trading and taking bribes.

Eight others were also sentenced to prison terms, judiciary spokesman Zabihollah Khodaeian said. All of those convicted have the right to appeal.

Khodaeian said the three central bank officials were involved in violations of the currency market in 2016, a time when the Iranian rial sustained considerable losses in value against major foreign currencies. They illegally injected $160 million and €20 million into the market.

The rial exchange rate was at 39,000 to $1 in 2017 at the beginning of Araghchi’s time in office but it reached more than 110,000 to $1 by the time he was dismissed in 2018.

The change partly coincided with severe US sanctions imposed on Tehran.

The rial has tumbled from a rate of about 32,000 rials to $1 at the time of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers to about 27,000 rials to $1 in recent months.

The currency unexpectedly rallied for some time after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear deal and reimpose crippling trade sanctions on Iran in 2018.

The sanctions have caused Iran’s oil exports, the country’s main source of income, to fall sharply.

(With AP)


How viable is the Kurds’ autonomous territory in northeast Syria?

Members of the Syrian Kurdish internal security services known as “Asayish” march in a procession ahead of the body of their fallen comrade Khalid Hajji. (AFP/File Photo)
Members of the Syrian Kurdish internal security services known as “Asayish” march in a procession ahead of the body of their fallen comrade Khalid Hajji. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 32 min 6 sec ago

How viable is the Kurds’ autonomous territory in northeast Syria?

Members of the Syrian Kurdish internal security services known as “Asayish” march in a procession ahead of the body of their fallen comrade Khalid Hajji. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Bashar Assad appears uninterested in a more decentralized state in which the Kurds have greater autonomy
  • America’s botched Afghanistan exit might work in the Kurds’ favor if Biden wants to avoid similar scenes in Syria

MISSOURI, USA: Ilham Ahmed, head of the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has been lobbying Moscow and Washington to support Kurdish representation in the long-stalled, UN-backed Syrian peace process.

Ahmed, who has visited both capitals in recent weeks, also wants the country’s Kurdish-run region to be exempted from sanctions imposed under the 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, the US legislation that sanctioned the regime of President Bashar Assad for war crimes against the Syrian people.

But what are the Syrian Kurds hoping for, precisely, and how viable are their proposals?

Russian jets, Iran-backed fighters, Turkish-supported insurgents, Islamist radicals, US troops and Syrian government forces, as well as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), operate across the patchwork of territories that constitute northern Syria.

The US views the YPG as a key ally in the fight against Daesh in northeastern Syria while Russia has forces in the area to support President Assad.

While some media outlets reported that Ahmed, as the president of the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), was lobbying for American or Russian support for the creation of a breakaway state, the Syrian Kurds are not actually pushing for such a maximalist goal.

The Syrian Kurdish parties are sympathetic to the ideology of jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan. They say they reject nationalism, secession and statism in general, in line with Ocalan’s post-2001 writings.

At the same time, however, Syrian Kurdish organizations appear to be establishing all the trappings of their own separate state in the territory they control.

Their military forces — including the SDF, the YPG and the YPJ, the YPG’s all-female militia — are working assiduously to establish and maintain their monopoly on the use of force in the northeast.

They have clashed not only with Turkish forces and various Islamist extremist groups in the area, but also on occasion with Kurdish armed groups, the military forces of the Assad regime, Free Syrian Army rebels and others.

A member of the Kurdish internal security services known as Asayish stands guard during a demonstration by Syrian Kurds against the Turkish assault on northeastern Syria and in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli. (AFP/File Photo)

Competing political parties in the territories under their control have likewise faced pressure, or outright bans, as the SDC and its ally, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), seek to bring everyone under the same institutional and governing structures that they created and dominate.

In some ways the Kurds of the SDC and PYD have proven to be very liberal, happily welcoming Arab tribes, Christians, Yezidis, Armenians, Turkmen and other groups and ethnicities into their ranks and governing structures.

However, they appear much less accepting and tolerant of those who seek to operate outside of the “democratic autonomy” political umbrella they have established.

With their own security forces, political institutions, schools and a variety of party-established civil-society organizations, it does at times look as though the Syrian Kurds are intent on creating their own separate state. But what choice did they have after the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011?

The Assad regime had brutally repressed Kurds for decades prior to the war. After Assad withdrew his forces and much of the Syrian government’s personnel from northeast Syria early in the conflict, to focus on the western and southern parts of the country where the rebel threat appeared the greatest, someone had to fill the resultant vacuum.

Syrian Kurdish women carry party flags, as they take part in a rally in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People's Protection Forces. (AFP/File Photo)

PKK-aligned Syrian Kurdish groups moved in to defend the area against Daesh and other extremist groups that were trying to take over. They fought extremely hard against the radical Islamists, handing Daesh its first defeat, in Kobani in 2014.

Freed from the regime’s iron grip for the first time in their lives, the Kurds seized the opportunity to establish Kurdish and other minority-language programs, cultural centers, schools and institutions.

Fearing the malign “divide and conquer” tactics of neighboring powers, the new Syrian Kurdish authorities rejected attempts by other Kurdish parties, particularly those under the influence of Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government, and Arab rebel groups to establish competing parties and militias in their hard-won territory.

Authorities in Turkey, meanwhile, were concerned by what they saw as an emerging PKK-controlled proto-state on their southern border. Through three military incursions in the last five years that displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds, Ankara seized hundreds of kilometers of the border strip and pushed around 30 km into northern Syria.

In 2018, Moscow appeared to greenlight the Turkish invasion of Afrin, which at the time was under SDF/YPG/PYD control, withdrawing its troops and allowing Turkish jets to operate in air space previously controlled by Russia.

Woman watch from a rooftop as US troops patrol in 2020 along the streets of the Syrian town of Al-Jawadiyah and meet the inhabitants, in the northeastern Hasakeh province, near the border with Turkey. (AFP/File Photo)

The following year, Washington appeared to do the same, withdrawing US troops from the Tal Abyad area on the border with Turkey just before the Turkish invasion.

These incursions have left the Syrian Kurdish administration in a serious bind. Without American support and the presence of a token US tripwire force, Turkey could well expand its area of control in northern Syria.

Just this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was determined to eliminate alleged threats originating in northern Syria and that a suspected YPG attack that killed two Turkish police officers in Azaz was “the final straw.”

Meanwhile, the Assad regime appears uninterested in any proposals for a “more decentralized Syrian state” in which parts of the northeast would remain nominally a part of the state but actually fall under Syrian Kurdish control.

Ahmed’s recent diplomatic forays have therefore focused on Moscow and Washington. In the former, the Syrian Kurds hope to convince the Russians to cajole the Assad regime into some sort of a compromise that would safeguard as much autonomy in northeastern Syria as possible. In the latter they aim to secure a US commitment not to abandon them again.

Cars drive past election campaign billboards depicting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, a candidate for the upcoming presidential vote, in the capital Damascus, on May 24, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

Ahmed outlined her hopes during a conference hosted by the Washington Institute on Sept. 29.

“The Syrian Democratic Council seeks a lasting political solution to the conflict, advocating internal dialogue and, ultimately, political and cultural decentralization that respects the country’s diversity and bolsters economic development,” she said.

“Continued support from our partner, the US, is crucial to this mission. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria faces numerous obstacles, including insecurity, poverty, foreign intervention, and terrorism.

“In addition, the Geneva peace process and constitutional process have stalled. The US could help alleviate these issues in the pursuit of a more stable Syria free of despotism, proxy conflicts and terror.”

America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan in August undoubtedly will have unnerved Syrian Kurds already apprehensive about their own future. Assad, Turkey and Daesh would all welcome a similar US withdrawal from northeastern Syria.

It is unlikely the “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria,” the governing body of which is the SDC, would be able to hold up against such combined pressures.

US troops patrol along the streets of the Syrian town of Al-Jawadiyah. (AFP/File Photo)

However, the botched American withdrawal from Afghanistan might actually work in Syrian Kurds’ favor, as the Biden administration will probably try to avoid a similar embarrassment in Syria any time soon.

Following meetings in Washington last month with representatives of the White House, State Department and Pentagon, Ahmed seems to have received a reassuring response.

“They (the Americans) promised to do whatever it takes to destroy Islamic State (Daesh) and work to build infrastructure in northeastern Syria,” she told the Reuters news agency. “They said they are going to stay in Syria and will not withdraw — they will keep fighting Islamic State.”

She added: “Before, they were unclear under Trump and during the Afghan withdrawal, but this time they made everything clear.”

With no change of attitudes in Damascus or Ankara, the Syrian Kurds are left with little choice but to continue to rely on the American presence, cooperation and support. At best, they can extend the status quo and the longevity of their precarious autonomy.

If they can convince Washington and Russia to help them reopen the crossings on the border with Iraq, exempt them from the sanctions designed to target the Assad regime, and allow the delivery of international aid directly to their enclave, rather than being routed through Damascus with the result that it rarely reaches the northeast, then the political and economic situation will improve.

Without a more durable political solution on the horizon, this is probably the best the Syrian Kurds can hope for.

--------------

* David Romano is Thomas G. Strong professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University


Thousands of pro-military protesters rally against Sudan government

Thousands of pro-military protesters rally against Sudan government
Updated 16 October 2021

Thousands of pro-military protesters rally against Sudan government

Thousands of pro-military protesters rally against Sudan government
  • Saturday’s demonstrations were organized by a splinter faction of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC)
  • FFC is a civilian alliance which spearheaded the anti-Bashir protests and became a key plank of the transition

KHARTOUM: Thousands of pro-military Sudanese protesters took to the streets Saturday demanding the dissolution of the transitional government, saying it had “failed” them politically and economically.
The protests came as Sudanese politics reels from divisions among the factions steering the rocky transition from two decades of iron-fisted rule by Omar Al-Bashir, who was ousted by the army in April 2019 in the face of mass protests.
Saturday’s demonstrations were organized by a splinter faction of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a civilian alliance which spearheaded the anti-Bashir protests and became a key plank of the transition.
“We need a military government, the current government has failed to bring us justice and equality,” said Abboud Ahmed, a 50-year-old protester near the presidential palace in central Khartoum.
The official SUNA news agency reported that protesters had traveled in by truck from Khartoum’s outskirts and from neighboring states.
Critics alleged that the protests involved sympathizers of the Bashir regime, which was dominated by Islamists and the military.
Banners called for the “dissolution of the government.” Protesters chanted “one army, one people” and “the army will bring us bread.”
“We are marching in a peaceful protest and we want a military government,” said housewife Enaam Mohamed.
On Friday, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok warned that the transition is facing its “worst and most dangerous” crisis.
The mainstream faction of the FFC said: “The current crisis is not related to dissolution of the government of not.
“It is engineered by some parties to overthrow the revolutionary forces... paving the way for the return of remnants of the previous regime.”
Support for the transitional government has waned in recent months in the face of a tough package of IMF-backed economic reforms, including the slashing of fuel subsidies and a managed float of the Sudanese pound.
Protests have rocked eastern Sudan where demonstrators have blocked trade through the key hub of Port Sudan since September.
On September 21, the government said it thwarted a coup attempt which it blamed on both military officers and civilians linked to Bashir’s regime.


Families of Beirut blast victims back judge amid pressure

Families of Beirut blast victims back judge amid pressure
Updated 16 October 2021

Families of Beirut blast victims back judge amid pressure

Families of Beirut blast victims back judge amid pressure
  • The families’ statement was apparently meant to counter a video released by their spokesman on social media Friday in which he calls on Judge Tarek Bitar to step down
  • The spokesman could not be reached for comment and it was unclear if he had made the video under pressure

BEIRUT: Families of the Beirut blast victims on Saturday reaffirmed their support for the judge leading the investigation into the tragedy, days after deadly clashes in the capital between those backing him and those demanding his removal from the case.  

The families’ statement was apparently meant to counter a video released by their spokesman late on Friday in which he called on Judge Tarek Bitar to step down.

The families said the spokesman, Ibrahim Hoteit, had not coordinated with them and that the video had taken them by surprise.

Some of them said the video “may have been filmed under threat” as Hoteit was reading from a written statement.

William Noun, one of the families’ representatives, said: “We do not blame him. This is not his language, but he lives in Hezbollah's security square.”

Thursday saw gun battles erupt on Beirut’s streets between rival camps over Bitar’s role. At least six people were killed and dozens were wounded.  

Lebanese Justice Minister Henry El-Khoury said on Saturday that he stood by Bitar and that the judge had the right to summon whoever he wanted in the case.

The minister also said he did not have the authority to replace Bitar and that he faced no pressure to do so, media reported.

There was a meeting between Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the president of the Supreme Judicial Council, Judge Suhail Abboud, top prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oueidat, and El-Khoury on Saturday to discuss Bitar’s case.

It was decided that Bitar would be invited to a meeting on Tuesday with the Supreme Judicial Council.

A judicial source told Arab News: “Judge Abboud is committed to judicial, not political, approaches to resolving the current problem."

The Council of Ministers cannot dismiss Bitar from the port explosion probe. It requires the minister of justice, along with the Supreme Judicial Council, to remove him and appoint another investigator.

During the meeting, Mikati stressed that “the full file of what happened is with the security services under the supervision of the competent judiciary.”

Mikati, according to his office, also said the government was “keen not to interfere in any file related to the judiciary, and that the judicial authority must take whatever measures it deems appropriate.”

Ministers from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement decided not to attend any Cabinet session unless two demands were resolved. One was the removal of Bitar from the blast probe and the second was arresting those responsible for triggering the deadly fighting on Thursday. They have both accused the Lebanese Forces party of being behind the violence.

Bitar had summoned three ministers for questioning during a period in which they did not enjoy immunity. He issued an arrest warrant in absentia against former Minister Ali Hassan Khalil for not appearing before him.

The Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar reported that some MPs “stayed in their homes based on advice given to them by some security services, and to avoid any dangers they might be exposed to in the street.”

Charles Jabbour, head of the media and communications wing of the Lebanese Forces party, told Arab News: “Yes, this advice was given to the MPs of the Lebanese Forces. There is fear of them being exposed to assassination and murder. Hezbollah previously practiced this method. The solution of the emerging crisis requires that Hezbollah hand over its weapons to the state because it is about time to do that.”

He also commented on the embarrassment facing President Michel Aoun because of his duty to defend Bitar’s work and the independence of the judiciary while approving the demand of his ally Hezbollah to dismiss Bitar from the position of judicial investigator. “The president must bear his responsibility to implement justice. This has been our original demand and we are still insisting on it,” he said.

Free Patriotic Movement MP Asaad Dergham said there was disagreement between the movement and Hezbollah on the issue of the Beirut blast.

He said: “If Hezbollah's goal is to change a specific reality and impose opinion by force, then this has its caveats. If the tensions remain, this will certainly affect the relationship between Hezbollah and the movement, because it is not enough to be strong only in the front line, there is a need for strength in the ranks of the base.”

The blast on Aug. 4, 2020, killed more than 200 people. It wounded thousands more and devastated swathes of the capital.  


Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Updated 16 October 2021

Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe
  • Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already served a five-year prison sentence in Iran
  • Her lawyer said the appeals court upheld a verdict issued earlier this year sentencing her to another year

TEHRAN: An Iranian appeals court has upheld a verdict sentencing an Iranian-British woman long held in Tehran to another year in prison, her lawyer said Saturday.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already served a five-year prison sentence in the Islamic Republic. Her lawyer Hojjat Kermani told The Associated Press that the appeals court upheld a verdict issued earlier this year sentencing her to another year.
The verdict additionally includes a one-year travel ban abroad, meaning she cannot leave Iran to join her family for nearly two years.
In April, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced for allegedly spreading “propaganda against the system” when she participated in a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009.
Kermani said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “concerned” when he informed her about the appeals court decision. He said his client is in touch with her family.
State media in Iran did not immediately acknowledge the ruling, apparently issued after a closed-door hearing.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny. While employed at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, she was taken into custody at the Tehran airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family.
Rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual-nationals as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies. Iran does not recognize dual nationalities, so detainees like Zaghari-Ratcliffe cannot receive consular assistance.
Authorities furloughed Zaghari-Ratcliffe from prison because of the surging coronavirus pandemic and she has been restricted to her parents’ Tehran home since.