BEIRUT: Relatives of some of the victims of the massive explosion at Beirut’s port in 2020, which killed at least 218 people, on Wednesday protested against the judiciary’s plan to appoint a new judge to the official investigation. They denounced the move as an attempt by the country’s political class to avoid justice.
The probe into the blast, which caused billions of dollars in damage, has been stalled since December, after three former cabinet ministers filed legal challenges against the investigating judge, Tarek Bitar.
Justice Minister Henri Khoury and the Higher Judicial Council, Lebanon’s top judicial body, are looking at appointing a second judge, reportedly with a view to releasing some port and customs officials and other workers who have been detained without charge since the explosion.
William Noun, whose brother died in the blast, said: “The families of the victims want the investigations to be conducted again. We also want Judge Bitar to carry out his duties away from the political rivalries.”
The mother of another victim said: “We are not against setting detainees free. However, truth and justice must be achieved.”
Moody Koraytem, the sister of Hassan Kamel Koraytem, the chairman and director general of Beirut Port, who is one of those being detained, said: “The fate of the detainees is in the hands of the people in power. Those detainees have not yet faced a trial, which is unjust to them and their families.”
An unprecedented number of cases have been filed against Bitar, who was suspended after he accused a former premier, former ministers and current lawmakers of bearing responsibility for the blast as a result of their negligence.
A judicial source told Arab News: “Judge Bitar will exert all his efforts to resume the investigation, just as they (the opponents) have exerted all their efforts to dismiss him from the case. Whenever Bitar reaches a dead end, then resignation might be an option.”
A politician, who asked not to be named, said: “The justice minister is collaborating with the Higher Judicial Council to prevent justice by appointing a new judicial investigator who enjoys exceptional powers, thus knocking down Judge Bitar. They have buried justice but we are here to confront them.”
Many blame the Lebanese government for the explosion but the progress of the investigation has been impeded by the political elite and their long-standing hold on power.
The explosions on Aug. 4, 2020, happened when hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a component of fertilizers, detonated. It later emerged that the chemicals had been shipped to Lebanon in 2013 and stored improperly in a warehouse at the port. Senior political and security officials were said to have known about it.
Bitar is the second judge to head the official investigation into the explosion. Two cabinet ministers forced the first judge, Fadi Sawan, out amid accusations of bias.