Suspension of judge in Beirut port blast brings investigations back to square one

Suspension of judge in Beirut port blast brings investigations back to square one
The Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut port blast killed hundreds, injured thousands and destroyed large swathes of the capital Beirut. (Reuters)
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Updated 27 September 2021

Suspension of judge in Beirut port blast brings investigations back to square one

Suspension of judge in Beirut port blast brings investigations back to square one
  • Judge Tareq Bitar stops all procedures related to the file pending a decision on appeal filed by MP Nohad Al-Machnouk

BEIRUT: Judge Tareq Bitar, the judicial investigator into the Beirut port explosion, was informed on Monday that he had been suspended from the case after MP Nohad Al-Machnouk filed an appeal against him last week.

Bitar suspended his investigation and all procedures related to the file, pending a decision by the Beirut Appeals Court to accept or reject the appeal filed by Al-Machnouk.

Bitar was appointed on Feb. 19 as the second judge to lead the investigation into the explosion, after Judge Fadi Sawan. On Feb. 18, Sawan was suspended from the file, four months after his appointment to lead the investigation, following requests by former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zuaiter, whom Sawan charged in relation to the incident, with the file was transferred due to “legitimate suspicion.”

The disaster, which shook the world on Aug. 4, 2020, claimed the lives of 215 people, injured more than 6,500 and destroyed the waterfront of the Lebanese capital. It was caused by the ignition of ammonium nitrate, part of a cache estimated at 2,750 tons, according to official estimates, which was stored in silo number 12 of the port, along with quantities of other seized explosives.

It was confiscated from a ship docked in the port in 2014.

Bitar and Sawan included in their accusations former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, several other current ministers and MPs, senior army officers, general and state security officers, senior employees at the port, as well as some judges.

The allegations were based on crimes related to negligence, causing the death of more than 200 people, wounding thousands of people, some of them seriously with physical deformities and permanent disabilities, in addition to the destruction of the port and its facilities, as well as multiple homes and public and private properties.

Bitar had interrogated on Monday the former intelligence chief, Jawdat Oweidat, and began holding a session to interrogate Brig. Gen. Kamil Daher and Brig. Gen. Ghassan Gharzeddine in the case, when he was informed of the decision to suspend him.

Arab News learned from a judicial source that, last Friday, Bitar referred the attorney general, Judge Ghassan Khoury, to the Public Prosecutor at the Court of Cassation, and requested a case against him for “filing away the ammonium nitrate file when it was in his possession.”

The process of prosecuting judges is the responsibility of the Public Prosecutor at the Court of Cassation and not to the judicial investigator in the crime.

The decision to suspend Bitar is official, but it is not final, pending the decision of the Court of Appeal. If Al-Machnouk’s request is accepted, then matters will return to square one.

Former Minister Youssef Fenianos, a defendant in the case, had previously submitted a “request to transfer the explosion file from Judge Bitar due to legitimate suspicion.”

Bitar renewed his referral to the Public Prosecution two new requests addressed to the minister of interior and the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers, requesting permission to prosecute the Director General of General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, and the Director General of State Security Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba.

Bitar had set Sept. 30 to interrogate Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, Oct. 1 for the interrogation of ministers Ghazi Zuaiter and Al-Machnouk, and Oct. 4 as a new date for hearing former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who is in the US, after Bitar decided to inform him of the date of his interrogation session.

Former Public Prosecutor Judge Hatem Madi said that “when the judiciary is shaken, this means that a mistake has occurred.” He told Arab News: “There is a crime that took place in the port of Beirut. The first judicial investigator was removed and now the second judicial investigator is being removed. How long will this interaction with the judiciary continue? Is there an intention to appoint a third judicial investigator? What if he followed in the footsteps of the two previous judges? Are they going to remove him, too? (Are they going to continue) until the judiciary is empty of its judges, or will they resort to judges from another planet?”

Madi said that “when the opponent is suspicious of the impartiality of the judge, he is afraid that he will judge against his interest.”

On whether Bitar is impartial in his work, Madi said: “When a judge works, someone stands against him, even if he is just. Usually, judges bypass this. I do not know the criminal policy followed by Judge Bitar, but what he has done so far is good, it is professional, and there is no doubt about it. As for why he chose this method and not another method, the file is his responsibility and he is the boss, and he chose the path that he saw fit. It does not mean that he made a mistake.”

Bitar received threats from Hezbollah to remove him from the file. The first threat was by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah last August, who publicly accused him of “politicizing” the case, adding: “Either he (Bitar) adheres to a clear technical investigation, or the judiciary must find another judge.”

The second threat came from Hezbollah’s security and liaison officer, Wafiq Safa, who went last week to the Palace of Justice in Beirut and met with several judges. He told Lara Al-Hashem, a journalist at the Palace of Justice, to deliver a message to Bitar, saying: “We are tired of you. We will follow the legal path to the end, and if the situation does not go well, we will uproot you.”

Al-Hashem revealed on Sunday that she “delivered the message to Judge Bitar, and his response was: “Wafiq Safa is right, no matter how my uprooting process was.”

She said that she also conveyed Safa’s message to the discriminatory Public Prosecutor. She added that there was “data of communications, surveillance cameras and witnesses, and I am under the roof of the law.”

Hezbollah’s threats sparked outrage within the judiciary, but it did not reach the level of public mass condemnation.

Imad Wakim, a member of the Lebanese Forces Party’s parliamentary bloc, commented on the suspension of Bitar from the file, tweeting: “Do you want Wafiq Safa as a judicial investigator?”

 


Sudan arrests 3 coup critics as pressure mounts on military

Sudan arrests 3 coup critics as pressure mounts on military
Updated 5 sec ago

Sudan arrests 3 coup critics as pressure mounts on military

Sudan arrests 3 coup critics as pressure mounts on military
  • The overnight arrests came as protests denouncing Monday’s takeover continued in the capital of Khartoum and elsewhere

CAIRO: Sudanese security forces detained three prominent pro-democracy figures, according to their relatives and other activists on Wednesday, as internal and international pressure mounted on the country’s military to walk back its coup.
The overnight arrests came as protests denouncing Monday’s takeover continued in the capital of Khartoum and elsewhere, and many businesses shut in response to calls for strikes. Security forces kept up their heavy-handed response, chasing demonstrators in several neighborhoods late Tuesday, according to activists who said some were shot and wounded. At least six people have been killed in protests so far, according to doctors.
The coup threatens to halt Sudan’s fitful transition to democracy, which began after the 2019 ouster of long-time ruler Omar Al-Bashir and his Islamist government in a popular uprising. It came after weeks of mounting tensions between military and civilian leaders over the course and pace of that process.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the military’s takeover was a “catastrophic development,” warning that it would have “severe consequences” for Sudan’s recent efforts to reintegrate into the international community after nearly three decades of isolation under Al-Bashir.
“It is putting the country in a perilous situation and is calling the Sudan’s democratic and peaceful future ... into question,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
Following widespread international condemnation, the military allowed deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and his wife to return home on Tuesday night. Hamdok, a former UN economist, was detained along with other government officials when the military seized power.
Several Western embassies in Khartoum said Wednesday they will continue to recognize Hamdok and his Cabinet as “the constitutional leaders of the transitional government” of Sudan.
In a joint statement, the embassies of the European Union, the US, the UK, France and several other European countries called for the release of other detained officials and for talks between the military and the pro-democracy movement.
The new strongman, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, has pledged to hold elections, as planned, in July 2023, and to appoint a technocrat government in the meantime.
But critics doubt the military is serious about eventually ceding control, noting that the coup came just weeks before Burhan was supposed to hand over the leadership of the top ruling body, the Sovereign Council, to a civilian. The council is made up of both civilian and military leaders but led by a general. Separately, Hamdok’s transitional government ran day-to-day affairs.
The activists taken overnight were Ismail Al-Taj, a leader of the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, the group at the forefront of the protests that brought down Al-Bashir; Sediq Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi, a leader in Sudan’s largest political party, known as Umma and brother of Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Mahdi; and Khalid Al-Silaik, a former media adviser to the prime minister.
The three have been outspoken critics of the military takeover — and have called for protests against the move. Already, tens of thousands of Sudanese have taken to the streets, and activists are planning a mass demonstration on Saturday.
Security forces confronting protesters have killed at least six people since Monday and wounded over 140 others, many in critical condition, according to physicians with the Sudan Doctors’ Committee.
Al-Silaik was detained moments after he gave an interview to broadcaster Al-Jazeera, according to his wife, Marwa Kamel. In the interview, he criticized the military’s takeover, calling Hamdok and his government the legitimate administration of Sudan.
“What Gen. Burhan did is a complete coup. ... People will respond to this in the coming days,” Al-Silaik said.
Activists Nazim Siraj and Nazik Awad and the Umma party confirmed the arrests of the other two figures.
On Monday, Burhan, the head of the military, dissolved the Sovereign Council and the transitional government, and declared a state of emergency. He alleged that the military was forced to step in to prevent the country from sliding into civil war — but he had repeatedly warned he wanted to delay the transition to civilian leadership of the council.


Lebanon’s politician Geagea misses hearing over Beirut violence

Lebanon’s politician Geagea misses hearing over Beirut violence
Updated 27 October 2021

Lebanon’s politician Geagea misses hearing over Beirut violence

Lebanon’s politician Geagea misses hearing over Beirut violence

BEIRUT: Supporters of the Christian Lebanese Forces party on Wednesday blocked roads to leader Samir Geagea’s residence as he failed to turn up for a hearing at army intelligence over fatal clashes in Beirut.
Geagea was summoned to the hearing, scheduled for 9 a.m. local time on Wednesday, amid claims by the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its ally the Amal Movement that Lebanese Forces (LF) supporters shot dead seven of their followers in clashes on Oct. 14.
Geagea has denied the claims and said he is being unfairly targetted for his support of a probe by Judge Tarek Bitar into the August 2020 Beirut port explosion that Hezbollah opposes.
“We won’t let anyone, not Hezbollah nor Iran nor Syria or anyone try to subjugate us,” LF protester Fadi told Reuters.
“We are here today in 2021 sacrificing for Samir Geagea just like he sacrified for us in 1994 so Lebanon could remain and we could remain,” Fadi, who did not give his last name, said.
Geagea, a former warlord, was imprisoned after Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war and released in 2005 following the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after three decades of occupation.


UN, US sanction Libyan official over human trafficking

UN, US sanction Libyan official over human trafficking
Updated 27 October 2021

UN, US sanction Libyan official over human trafficking

UN, US sanction Libyan official over human trafficking
  • The Al-Nasr Martyrs detention center is located in the western town of Zawiya
  • A spokesman for the Libyan government did not answer calls seeking comment

CAIRO: The United Nations Security Council and the United States have imposed sanctions on a Libyan official over the alleged abuse and torture of migrants in a detention center.
The Security Council and the US said in separate statements late Tuesday that Osama Al-Kuni is the de facto head of a detention center in the North African nation’s west. Migrants there are said to have been subjected to torture, sexual and gender-based violence and human trafficking.
Libya emerged as a major conduit for African migrants hoping to reach Europe after a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed the country’s longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The country subsequently slid into chaos, with rival governments and parliaments based in its western and eastern regions, each backed by different militias and tribes.
The Al-Nasr Martyrs detention center is located in the western town of Zawiya, home of two of the country’s most wanted human traffickers, Abdel-Rahman Milad, and militia leader Mohammed Kachlaf.
Both Milad and Kachlaf were sanctioned by the Security Council in 2018 over allegations of human trafficking and abuse of migrants.
A spokesman for the Libyan government did not answer calls seeking comment.
In its statement Tuesday, the UN sanctions committee said Al-Kuni “has acted for or on behalf of or at the direction” of Milad and Kachlaf.
The Department of the Treasury blamed Al-Kuni on “systematic exploitation of African migrants at the detention center where these migrants are subject to various human rights abuses.”
It said he or others under his direction “have been involved in or facilitated the killing, exploitation, abuse, and extortion of migrants at the detention center, including through sexual violence, beatings, starvation, and other mistreatment.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the Libyan government to hold Al-Kuni and others implicated in human rights abuses accountable.
Libya holds migrants in overcrowded detention centers, like Al-Nasr, where torture, sexual assault and other abuses are rife. Detention center guards beat and tortured migrants, then extorted money from their relatives, supposedly in exchange for their freedom, The Associated Press reported earlier this month.
UN-commissioned investigators said earlier this month that abuse and ill treatment of migrants in Libya amount to crimes against humanity.


Khartoum airport will reopen on Wednesday: Head of Sudan civil aviation

Khartoum airport will reopen on Wednesday: Head of Sudan civil aviation
Updated 27 October 2021

Khartoum airport will reopen on Wednesday: Head of Sudan civil aviation

Khartoum airport will reopen on Wednesday: Head of Sudan civil aviation
  • The airport was closed from Monday following the ousting of Sudan's government by the military

KHARTOUM: Khartoum International Airport will reopen on Wednesday at 1400 GMT, the head of Sudanese civil aviation told Reuters.
The airport was closed from Monday following the ousting of Sudan's government by the military.


Gasoline distribution returning to normal after cyberattack – state media

Gasoline distribution returning to normal after cyberattack – state media
Updated 27 October 2021

Gasoline distribution returning to normal after cyberattack – state media

Gasoline distribution returning to normal after cyberattack – state media
  • Details of the attack and its source are under investigation

DUBAI: Iran’s state news agency IRNA reported on Wednesday that gasoline distribution is returning to normal a day after a cyberattack which affected 4,300 gas stations across the country.
The details of the attack and its source are under investigation, Abul-Hassan Firouzabadi, the Secretary of the Supreme Council to Regulate Virtual Space, told the news agency.