Probe into Beirut port blast halted for 2nd time in fortnight

Special Probe into Beirut port blast  halted for 2nd time in fortnight
The destruction is pictured on October 26, 2020 at Beirut's port following the August 4 massive chemical explosion at the site which that caused severe damage across swathes of the Lebanese capital. (File/AFP)
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Updated 13 October 2021

Probe into Beirut port blast halted for 2nd time in fortnight

Probe into Beirut port blast  halted for 2nd time in fortnight
  • Lebanon’s former state prosecutor claims calls for removal of investigation judge are ‘unfair’

BEIRUT: The judge leading the investigation into the Beirut port blast has been forced to halt his inquiry for the second time in two weeks.

Tarek Bitar was notified on Tuesday by the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation of a new dismissal case submitted by defendants, former ministers, and current MPs Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter.

Bitar got the call five minutes after issuing an arrest warrant in absentia for Lebanon’s former finance minister, Khalil, who failed to appear for questioning on Tuesday. Khalil does not currently have immunity, which means he could be arrested.

Politicians accused of “negligence and causing the death and injury of hundreds of people” in the devastating explosion have made numerous requests for Bitar to be removed from the probe in an attempt to evade questioning before Oct. 19, when they regain immunity once Parliament reconvenes.

On Monday, Khalil and Zeaiter submitted a request for Bitar’s dismissal before the Fifth Chamber of the Civil Court of Cassation, but the chamber’s chief judge, Jeannette Hanna, rejected it on the grounds of “lack of jurisdiction.”

Later the same day the MPs submitted a further request to the First Chamber of the Civil Court of Cassation and a decision is expected from its chief judge, Naji Eid, on Wednesday. A judicial source said Eid would most probably follow suit with Hanna.

Khalil and Zeaiter had previously filed a similar plea before the Civil Court of Appeals, but that too was thrown out by the chief judge, Nassib Elia, on Oct. 4.

Bitar had been due to quiz Zeaiter and former minister Nohad Machnouk on Wednesday and the go-ahead for the session now hinges on the Civil Court of Cassation’s ruling on Zeaiter and Khalil’s request.

Lebanon’s former state prosecutor, Judge Hatem Madi, told Arab News he had been dismayed by the “many requests to dismiss Bitar,” adding that there was “an exaggeration and abuse of the rights granted by law.”

He said: “We have never had a similar scenario happen with any other judge in the history of the judiciary. I think that Bitar is doing his duty correctly, and no one has the right to know what is happening in the investigation. Not even the president of the republic has the right to ask Bitar to know the course and content of the investigation.

“Politicians are accusing Bitar of being politicized because they have no other argument; they have nothing to say about his work.

“The pressures exerted on Bitar mean that none of the judges will agree to investigate the crime after him. He is the second investigator to be pressured to stop his inquiry after the first investigator Judge Fadi Sawan was removed. But at the end of the day, the investigation continues,” Madi added.

On why some of the defendants in the inquiry had failed to appear for questioning, Madi said: “If they are certain they are innocent, they ought to appear before Bitar; their rights are preserved, and their lawyers can always be present.

“Part of the campaign against Bitar may be caused by his performance, such as his failure to listen so far to President Michel Aoun, who said that he knew about the ammonium nitrates 10 days before the explosion.

“It could also be the fact that he is yet to charge all the ministers of public works who were in office throughout the seven years during which these hazardous materials were stored at Beirut port. The requests to remove Bitar are unfair to him. This must end,” he added.

Hezbollah has now entered an open confrontation with the judiciary, particularly since Wafiq Safa, the head of Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit, threatened to “uproot Bitar” from his position.

On Monday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused Bitar of “implementing a political agenda and exploiting the blood of martyrs.” He claimed that he “relies on discretion,” and warned of “a great disaster in the country should Bitar continue like this.”

In an address to the Supreme Judicial Council, Nasrallah said: “What is happening has nothing to do with justice or the law, and it must take action to resolve this. If the Supreme Judicial Council fails to do so, the Cabinet should resolve the issue. We are speaking on behalf of a large segment of this country, and it is our right that you answer us.”

He added that it was the judges who had permitted the unloading of the ammonium nitrate shipment at the docks in the first place.

“Just as judges can only be tried before the Supreme Judicial Council, presidents and ministers should only be tried before the Supreme Council for the trial of presidents and ministers,” he added.

On Tuesday, the Lebanese Ministry of Interior for the second time refused to give permission to prosecute the director general of general security, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, while the Supreme Defense Council also blocked a similar bid to bring a case against the director general of state security, Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba.

Meanwhile, head of the Tripoli Bar Association, Mohammed Al-Murad, said: “Judicial order is the first condition for restoring the state’s stature, so politicians and non-politicians ought to stop interfering in it. The judiciary is not an arena for plotting or settling accounts, and it is not a means of power.”