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

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)
Short Url
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.”


Algeria’s FLN narrowly wins local polls

Algeria’s FLN narrowly wins local polls
Updated 15 sec ago

Algeria’s FLN narrowly wins local polls

Algeria’s FLN narrowly wins local polls
ALGIERS: Algeria’s long-dominant National Liberation Front has narrowly won local elections, preliminary results showed Tuesday, in a vote seen as key in efforts to turn the page on late president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rule.
The FNL, which led the country’s war of independence from France and was for decades its only party, won 5,978 seats nationwide, followed by its traditional ally the Democratic National Rally (RND) with 4,584, electoral board chief Mohamed Charfi said.
Independents came third with 4,430 seats, Charfi told journalists.
Saturday’s vote was an important test for President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected in a contentious, widely boycotted 2019 ballot months after Bouteflika stepped down under pressure from the army and the Hirak pro-democracy protest movement.
Bouteflika died in September, aged 84.
In November last year, less than 24 percent of the electorate approved amendments to the constitution, while at parliamentary elections in June, voter participation hit a record low of 23 percent.
Saturday saw 36.6 percent turnout for the local elections and 34.8 percent for regional polls, Cherfi said.
He had previously rejected any comparison with local ballots under Bouteflika, which were marked by widespread fraud.
The FLN won absolute majorities in 124 out of the country’s 1,541 municipalities, but lost majorities in 479 of the 603 it had controlled.
In 552 municipalities it will have to govern alongside its allies, including the RND, which won absolute majorities in 58 city councils.
Opposition veterans the Front of Socialist forces (FFS) won an absolute majority in 47 municipalities, many of them in the restive Kabylie region.

Macron urges Raisi to respect nuclear obligations ‘without delay’

Macron urges Raisi to respect nuclear obligations ‘without delay’
Updated 15 min 15 sec ago

Macron urges Raisi to respect nuclear obligations ‘without delay’

Macron urges Raisi to respect nuclear obligations ‘without delay’
  • Tehran’s top nuclear negotiator takes a hard-line approach after just one day of talks in Vienna

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron called on his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, to return to fulfilling Tehran’s obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal “without delay,” Macron’s office said, as negotiators seek to revive the accord through talks in Vienna.

During telephone conversations on Monday, Macron urged Raisi to engage in a “constructive manner” with the talks, which resumed this week after a suspension of almost half a year following the election of the hardliner to the Iranian presidency.

European powers are seeking to revive the nuclear deal, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It has been moribund since the US withdrew from the agreement in 2018, prompting Tehran to ramp up nuclear activities as Washington reimposed sanctions.

France’s objective is “to see Iran return to full respect for all of its commitments under the JCPOA and that the United States returns to the agreement,” the French presidency said.

Macron also “underscored the need for Iran to engage constructively in this direction so that the exchanges allow a swift return to the agreement,” it added.

“Iran must return without delay to compliance with all its commitments and obligations … and quickly resume cooperation that allows the (UN atomic energy) agency to fully carry out its mission,” it said.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, adopted a hard-line approach after just one day of the resumed talks, suggesting that everything discussed during previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated.

Speaking to Iranian state television, he described all that has been discussed so far as merely a “draft.”

He added: “Drafts are subject to negotiation. Therefore nothing is agreed on unless everything has been agreed on.

“On that basis, all discussions that took place in the (previous) six rounds (of talks) are summarized and are subject to negotiations. This was admitted by all parties in today’s meeting as well.”

Bagheri’s remarks directly contradicted comments on Monday by EU diplomat Enrique Mora, who is leading the talks.

“The Iranian delegation represents a new administration in Tehran with new, understandable political sensibilities, but they have accepted that the work done over the six first rounds is a good basis to build our work ahead, so no point in going back,” he said.

Another state TV report highlighted Bagheri in Vienna saying that Iran demands a “guarantee by America not to impose new sanctions” or reimpose previously lifted sanctions.

Mohammed Eslami, Iran’s civilian nuclear chief, reiterated this demand in comments to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.

“The talks (in Vienna) are about the return of the US to the deal and they have to lift all sanctions and this should be in practice and verifiable,” he said.

Raisi’s office said that he urged Macron “to strive with other parties in Vienna to conclude the negotiations and lift the sanctions against Iran.”

Raisi said: “Sending a full team to the talks shows Iran’s serious will in these talks.”

Referring to the US, he added: “Those who have started to violate the nuclear deal must gain the confidence of the other party for the negotiations to proceed in a real and fruitful manner.”


Yemen’s Marib will not fall to Houthis, says Hadi

Yemen’s Marib will not fall to Houthis, says Hadi
Updated 58 min 12 sec ago

Yemen’s Marib will not fall to Houthis, says Hadi

Yemen’s Marib will not fall to Houthis, says Hadi
  • President blasted the Houthis for launching a parallel economic war that has led to devaluation of Yemeni riyal
  • On Tuesday, the Yemeni riyal broke a record low, reaching 1600 riyals against a US dollar

AL-MUKALLA: Marib will not surrender to Iran-backed Houthi militias, Yemen's president said on Monday.

Speaking to the nation on the eve of the 54th anniversary of Yemen’s independence, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi said the Houthis, with the aid of Tehran, have mounted aggressive assaults on Marib city for months and rejected all international peace initiatives to end the war in Yemen.

“Yemen is facing a purely Iranian project that targets faith, religion and the homeland, and aims to strike … our Arab nation using … Houthi militias that have agreed to be a cheap tool to tear the nation apart,” Hadi said, stressing that government troops and local tribes would “bury” Houthi fighters in the deserts of Marib and not allow them to seize control of the strategic city.

“Marib, the gateway to the defense of the Arabian Peninsula, will not fall, and their project will fall in front of the solidity of our heroes, and its deserts will bury the dreams of their (Iranian) masters.”

The Yemeni leader has long accused the Iranian regime of supporting the Houthis with weapons and funds that fuel the militia’s expansion in the face of heavy attacks from the government forces and the Arab coalition.

The president blasted the Houthis for launching a parallel economic war that has led to the rapid devaluation of the Yemeni riyal and an aggravating economic meltdown.

“The militia launches a fierce economic attack to influence the national currency by all dirty methods, and (has created) a parallel economy that feeds on the people’s livelihoods, aids looting, smuggling and black market trade,” he said, referring to the Houthi ban on the use of new banknotes printed by the internationally-recognized government in Aden, and the rebels’ reluctance to deposit state revenues into the country’s central bank.

“We will continue our struggle until we restore the state, end the coup, and these militias submit to peace and national consensus.”

On Tuesday, the Yemeni riyal broke a record low, reaching 1600 riyals against a US dollar. The riyal traded at nearly 700 against the dollar in January.

Hadi’s pledges to face political, economic and military challenges came as the Arab coalition announced on Tuesday it was carrying out a new wave of airstrikes targeting military sites in Houthi-held Sanaa and other locations.

The coalition’s warplanes struck several military locations in Sanaa, including a site overrun by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the coalition said in a statement carried by the Saudi News Agency.

In a separate statement, the coalition announced on Tuesday afternoon it carried out an airstrike on a military training camp for the Houthis in Mahliyah district, south of Marib, killing more than 60 combatants.

Local media sites such as Al-Sahil Al-Gharbi reported that a hospital in the Houthi-controlled Radaa city, Al-Bayda province, received the bodies of 34 dead Houthis killed in airstrikes in the same district, adding that other airstrikes destroyed military reinforcements heading to battlefields south of Marib.

Maj. Gen. Abdu Abdullah Majili, a Yemeni army spokesperson, told Arab News on Tuesday that Houthi missile and drone strikes on areas in Marib have been reduced since the beginning of the coalition’s intensive airstrikes against missile depots and drone workshops in Sanaa.

“The successful strikes destroyed ballistic missile and drone stores and workshops, and led to a reduction in the firing of ballistic missiles at populated areas,” Majili said.


Lebanon’s economic meltdown threatens to cancel Christmas

Lebanon’s economic meltdown threatens to cancel Christmas
Updated 30 November 2021

Lebanon’s economic meltdown threatens to cancel Christmas

Lebanon’s economic meltdown threatens to cancel Christmas
  • Some parents who cannot afford gifts for their children are telling them that Santa Claus is sick and not coming this year

DUBAI: Christmas is a time for celebration around the globe, but this year Lebanon and the Lebanese will find it hard to enjoy the seasonal festivities amid what the World Bank has called one of the worst depressions of modern history.

Farah Fouad, a single mother, said that some parents who cannot afford gifts for their children are telling them that Santa Claus is sick and not coming this year.

Even the price of Christmas decorations are rocketing out of reach for many families.

Maroun Yousef, a father of three children who works in the Gulf, said: “I earn my salary in dollars since I work overseas, yet my wife told me that prices are unbelievably high.”

An average-sized tree costs between $80 and $120 —between 2 million and 3 million pounds at the present black market rate.

“This doesn’t make sense at all and kills the season’s spirit. Adults might accept the idea of not having a Christmas tree, but imagine how children would feel! This dollar crisis has been killing everything in Lebanon, literally everything,” he said.

In the past few days, the country has witnessed nationwide protests as the dollar reached the highs of 25,000 in local currency as opposed to the official rate of 1,500.

Reuters reported last week that the Lebanese currency has lost more than 93 percent of its value since summer 2019.

“It is ridiculous. A tree for 3 million pounds! That is almost double my monthly salary,” said Maria Michele who works in a telecom office.

“But forget about the tree, what about the ornaments! I guess we’re going to have a decoration-free season,” said Maria who said it will make her children sad. She even gets more worried about buying Christmas gifts for her kids. 

In popular Beirut shopping districts such as Hamra, Mar Elias, Achrafieh and Mar Mkhayel where people usually get their Christmas decorations, it was noticeable how most people were merely window shopping.

Gaby, a gifts shop owner, said: “It is such a heartbreaking situation. Earlier this morning, a mother had to pull her crying son forcibly out of my store once she saw the prices of decorations and gifts. It was painful to see how she told him off for wanting to buy a gift he liked … but obviously she didn’t have the money.”

Soumaya Adel, a teacher and mother, said: “No dollar, no money, no Christmas, no decorations, no nothing.”

Mona Bassem, a mother of two, said she and her husband decided to “play it low-key this festive season” and had set up last year’s tree and decorations.

“We have started preparing our kids that this season Santa Claus won’t be coming, so they need to expect small gifts, unlike before,” she said.  

She said her kids went “grumpy and sad” for a couple of days but they would have to deal with the situation as “we are going through very tough financial conditions. At least they get to enjoy Christmas spirit and festivities at school.”

According to a report published last week by UNICEF, 77 percent of Lebanese families say they lack sufficient food and 60 percent of them buy food by running up unpaid bills or borrowing money.

Khalil Faris, business manager, said: “It doesn’t feel like Christmas at all … we barely have food on the table.”

His cousin Adel said: “Even if we can afford buying a Christmas tree, there is no electricity for the lights. Everything is black and doomed in this country.”

Housewife Denise Ebrahim said that the economic meltdown has forced her to be “super frank” with her two daughters that “this Christmas they won’t be decorating or exchanging gifts due to the situation.”

“I couldn’t find any easier way to tell them, and they burst into tears. I promised them that if things improve, next year they’ll each get two gifts,” she said.


Egyptian Ministry of Health denies discovery of omicron variant in the country

Egyptian Ministry of Health denies discovery of omicron variant in the country
Updated 30 November 2021

Egyptian Ministry of Health denies discovery of omicron variant in the country

Egyptian Ministry of Health denies discovery of omicron variant in the country
  • It follows reports that two people infected with the new coronavirus variant were found on a flight from Ethiopia
  • Ministry of Health has ordered rapid lateral flow tests for all people arriving in Egypt from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini

CAIRO: The Egyptian Ministry of Health on Tuesday dismissed as rumors reports that two people infected with the newly discovered omicron coronavirus variant had been found on a flight arriving from Ethiopia.

Spokesman Hossam Abdel Ghaffar said: “This is not true. Egypt is still free of the new coronavirus variant.”

The Ministry of Health has ordered rapid lateral flow tests for all people arriving in Egypt from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini. Any passengers that test positive must return to their points of origin on same planes on which they arrived. Those who test negative must self-quarantine for seven days and take a PCR test at the end of that time.

Abdel Ghaffar stressed the importance of adhering to the precautionary measures implemented by Egyptian authorities to prevent the spread of the virus. He said these are designed to prevent the omicron variant entering the country, and added that although no cases of infection with the new variant have been discovered, “when it happens it will be announced with full transparency.”

Mohammed Al-Nadi, a member of the scientific committee charged with combating the coronavirus, said that although Egypt is free of the omicron variant so far, it is only a matter of time before cases are discovered in the country. He added that although many countries are attempting to prevent or slow the arrival of the variant, in the end it is likely to get through.

Egyptian authorities so far have done good job, Al-Nadi said, of isolating people arriving from places where the variant has been detected to reduce the chances of it spreading while information about it — such as its specific symptoms, how contagious it is and whether it is resistant to vaccines or treatments — is still uncertain.