Tensions rise in Lebanon after judge investigating Beirut blast takes aim at top officials

A handout picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra shows Lebanese Judge Ghassan Ouweidat (L) meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab (C) and Judge Mahmoud Makieh at the governmental palace in Beirut on January 28, 2020. (AFP)
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A handout picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra shows Lebanese Judge Ghassan Ouweidat (L) meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab (C) and Judge Mahmoud Makieh at the governmental palace in Beirut on January 28, 2020. (AFP)
Tensions rise in Lebanon after judge investigating Beirut blast takes aim at top officials
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The judge Tarek Bitar leading the investigation into Beirut's massive 2020 port blast resumed his work Monday, Jan. 23, 2023 after a nearly 13-month halt. The judge began his work by ordering the release of some detainees and plans to file charges against eight people including two top generals, judicial officials said. (AP)
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Updated 24 January 2023

Tensions rise in Lebanon after judge investigating Beirut blast takes aim at top officials

Tensions rise in Lebanon after judge investigating Beirut blast takes aim at top officials
  • Top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat rejected Judge Tarek Bitar’s decision to resume his probe and charge several leading figures, including Oueidat

BEIRUT: The fallout continued on Tuesday after Tarek Bitar, the Lebanese judge investigating the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port in August 2020, charged the country’s top prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, and seven other officials in connection with the blast. They reportedly face allegations of homicide, arson and other crimes.

Bitar surprised many people on Monday when he first announced he was resuming his investigation, which had been suspended for more a year amid political and legal opposition, and then said he would be filing charges against leading security and judicial officials, Oueidat included.

The announcement heightened long-running tensions between Bitar and the public prosecution office. Oueidat rejected the decision and said Bitar “has been removed from the case.”

More than a dozen senior officials are now in Bitar’s sights in connection with the explosion, including Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanese General Security; Tony Saliba, the director-general of State Security; and judges Ghassan Khoury, Carla Shawah and Jad Maalouf.

The explosion on Aug. 4, 2020, destroyed most of Beirut’s port and neighboring parts of the capital, killing more than 215 people and injuring more than 6,500.

Information leaked by the Bar Association revealed that Bitar has filed charges against Oueidat, the country’s highest judicial authority and member of the Supreme Judicial Council; Brig. Gen. Assaad Toufaili, chairman of the Supreme Council of Customs; Gracia Al-Azzi, a member of the Supreme Council of Customs; Brig. Gen. Camille Daher, the former head of military intelligence; Jawdat Oueidat, a former senior military intelligence officer; and Gen. Jean Kahwaji, a former army commander.

Bitar has also subpoenaed former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, MPs Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil, and former MP Nohad Machnouk. They responded by filing complaints against Bitar and calling for his removal from the case.

Bitar intends to interview them in the coming month about their alleged roles in “possible intentional killing” and “functional negligence.” On Tuesday, he notified Diab, Machnouk and Zeaiter of the dates on which they are expected to appear for questioning and displayed the summons sent to them.

The judge said he based his decision to resume his inquiry on a judicial study that found he was permitted to resume his judicial work 13 months after it was suspended as a result of complaints filed against him.

His announcements were welcomed by the families of the victims of the explosion, and of those detained in connection with it, who expect Bitar to question senior officials suspected of blame.

But Hatem Madi, a former prosecutor general, told Arab News: “I am worried about the weak image and fragile reputation of the judiciary. The study that Bitar relied on to resume work is a fatal error.”

Bitar’s move revived political debates and fears of escalating tensions on the streets, as dozens of protesters blocked a road in the Al-Shiah-Ain Al-Rummaneh area of Beirut with burning tires.

Previous protests, reportedly instigated by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, demanding Bitar’s removal from the case escalated into a bloody confrontation with residents of a Christian-majority area.

A parliamentary committee meeting on Tuesday that was due to discuss laws on the independence of the judiciary descended into squabbling and heated exchanges between representatives of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, who accused Bitar of “implementing foreign agendas,” and MPs from parties that oppose Hezbollah, who support the judge and his work.

Oweidat issued a statement on Tuesday saying that Bitar had “ignored us and considered that we do not exist as the public prosecution, and in return we will consider him non-existent.”

He denied that he intended to sue Bitar and added: “This matter is out of the question. Judge Bitar has his hands tied and the decision to return to work is illegal.”

In addition to announcing the charges against top officials, Bitar had also requested the release, without bail, of five people detained in connection with the case and that they be prevented from traveling. In light of row over his decisions, the detainees have not been released. A total of 17 people are currently in custody.

In a message posted on its official Twitter account, the US embassy in Lebanon wrote: “We support and urge Lebanese authorities to complete a swift and transparent investigation into the horrific explosion at the Port of Beirut.”

 


Yemen’s Taiz mourns 2 children who committed suicide

Yemen’s Taiz mourns 2 children who committed suicide
Updated 11 sec ago

Yemen’s Taiz mourns 2 children who committed suicide

Yemen’s Taiz mourns 2 children who committed suicide
  • Calls grow for deeper investigation into motivations and protection of youngsters amid shock and despair

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Security services of the southern Yemeni city of Taiz said that two children committed suicide in two separate events on Saturday, leaving the beleaguered population in shock and despair.

Police in Taiz said in a statement that they were notified of two suicide victims in the city on Saturday evening, citing the deaths as “dangerous precedents.”

Police named the first child as 12-year-old Kareem Abdul Kareem from the Al-Jamhuria neighborhood, who hanged himself inside his room on Saturday afternoon by tying a scarf around his neck.

Ammar Khaled, a 16-year-old who committed suicide on Saturday evening by wrapping a rope around his neck and tying it to a door outside his family’s home, is the second victim. 

After forensic investigators gathered photographs and evidence, his family requested his burial on the same day. 

Police in Taiz pledged to investigate the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the victims and have asked the community and professionals for assistance in determining the reasons behind the suicides.

In a statement, police urged both authorities and members of the public “to collaborate…in order to provide the appropriate answers.”

Mohammed Alawi, an investigator with police in Taiz, told Arab News that a team, including social and psychiatric professionals, was looking into the cases and would release their findings this week.

Initially, Alawi ruled out the possibility of cyberbullying or even sexual harassment and attributed the deaths of the two children to the mobile game PUBG. 

“These are risky games, and we advise parents to monitor their children’s mobile devices to see what they are seeing or playing,” Alawi said.

He also touched on other instances of suicide, which he blamed on psychological suffering caused by the war.

“Women and children in Yemen, particularly in besieged Taiz, have suffered emotionally because of the war. We had never seen such crimes before the war,” he said.  

On social media, the police statement and photographs of the two deceased children have elicited condolences for the families and calls for an investigation into the motivations behind the suicides and for the protection of children.

“You should investigate with the family about the electronic games they played, such as PUBG, and whether they have Facebook or WhatsApp accounts,” said Adnan Taha on Facebook.

“All communications should be reviewed, since (the children) may be vulnerable to harassment and extortion,” Taha said.

Another social media user, Muneir Al-Qaisi, urged local security agencies not to bury the victims before autopsies are conducted to determine whether they consumed anything poisonous.

“We hope you will not hurry to bury them and (will) examine their bodies,” Al-Qaisi said. 

“It is conceivable that the parents are unaware of beverages or meals being shared among the children,” said Al-Qaisi.

Investigator Alawi responded to accusations of a hasty burial by stating that one of the boys was buried at the request of his family and only after investigators examined both the corpse and the scene.

“He was buried after forensic teams examined the scene, photographed it, and performed investigations. Additionally, his relatives requested burial from the prosecution,” Alawi said.


Lebanon hopes UNESCO danger listing could save crumbling modernist fairground

Lebanon hopes UNESCO danger listing could save crumbling modernist fairground
Updated 16 sec ago

Lebanon hopes UNESCO danger listing could save crumbling modernist fairground

Lebanon hopes UNESCO danger listing could save crumbling modernist fairground
TRIPOLI: Its arch is cracking and its vast pavilions lie empty, but the crumbling Rachid Karami International Fair in Lebanon’s port city Tripoli now has hope of revival, having been added to the United Nations’ list of world heritage sites in danger.
Designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1962, the collection of structures on the 70-hectare plot is considered one of the key works of 20th century modernism in the Middle East.
But the fair park has slowly decayed due to repeated rounds of fighting over the last 60 years, poor maintenance and most recently Lebanon’s crippling, three-year-old financial crisis.
“It was placed on the World Heritage List exceptionally, quickly and urgently – and on the list of heritage in danger because it’s in a critical situation,” said Joseph Kreidi, UNESCO’s national program officer for culture in Beirut.
Its elegant arch is missing concrete in some parts, exposing the rebar underneath. Rainwater has pooled at the locked entrances. One section is sealed off by a sign that reads, “Unsafe building entry.”
“Placing it on the World Heritage Danger List is an appeal to all countries of the world, as if to say: this site needs some care,” said Kreidi.
He said it was up to the Lebanese authorities to draw together a plan for the site’s protection and rehabilitation but that UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, could help search for funding and provide technical expertise.
Lebanon has five other sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, most of them citadels and ancient temples.
Niemeyer is recognized as one of the fathers of modern architecture and the site in Tripoli was an early foray into the Middle East.
Construction of the fairground began in the 1960s but was delayed when civil war erupted in Lebanon in 1975. Fighters used the site to stage operations and stored weapons underneath its concrete dome.
Mira Minkara, a freelance tour guide from Tripoli and a member of the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation’s Tripoli chapter, has fond – but rare – memories of the fairground as a child.
For the most part, it was off-limits to Tripoli’s residents given safety concerns. But Minkara remembered her first visit during a festival of pan-African culture and crafts.
She hopes that UNESCO’s recognition could bring new festivals, exhibitions and economic benefits to Tripoli – already one of the poorest cities on the Mediterranean before Lebanon’s financial meltdown began.
Lebanon’s cultural heritage has been hit hard in recent years. The 2020 Beirut port blast tore through 19th-century homes in historic neighborhoods and power outages caused by the financial crisis have cut supplies to the national museum.
“We hope things change a little,” Minkara said. “It’s high time for this fairground to emerge from this long sleep, this almost-death.”

Egypt cancels World Youth Forum in light of global challenges

Egypt cancels World Youth Forum in light of global challenges
Updated 17 min 44 sec ago

Egypt cancels World Youth Forum in light of global challenges

Egypt cancels World Youth Forum in light of global challenges
  • Budget for event will instead be used to fund development initiatives
  • Event was set to start later this month

CAIRO: In response to a host of global economic challenges, this year’s World Youth Forum, which was set to start later this month, has been canceled, its organizers said on Saturday.

Instead, the budget for the event, which was to be held in the Egyptian town of Sharm El-Sheikh, will be used to fund the implementation of five development initiatives aimed at young people in Egypt and beyond.

This year would have marked the fifth edition of the forum, with the fourth being held in January last year. The event is organized by the Presidential Program for Qualifying Youth for Leadership.

It said the decision to cancel this year's conference was an acknowledgment of the multiple crises facing the world that have put huge humanitarian and economic pressures on nations and governments.

Among the beneficiaries of the redirected funding is a series of international exchange programs for young people. These will be arranged in cooperation with the Decent Life Foundation, National Alliance for Civil Development Action, Arab Union for Volunteering and UN Volunteers Program.

Parliamentary Counselor Issam Hilal Afifi told Arab News that the proceeds from the sponsorship rights to this year’s forum would be redirected toward a large package of initiatives.

Dr. Muhammad Mahmoud Mahran, secretary-general of the International Committee for the Defense of Water Resources, said the move would also enable recommendations made at the previous forum to be implemented.

The planned initiatives would have a positive impact at the local, African and global level, he said.


Teachers, lawyers protest against Palestinian Authority 

Teachers, lawyers protest against Palestinian Authority 
Updated 26 min 51 sec ago

Teachers, lawyers protest against Palestinian Authority 

Teachers, lawyers protest against Palestinian Authority 
  • Palestinian sources told Arab News that a strike by doctors might follow, which will destabilize the status of the PA

RAMALLAH: The Palestinian Authority is facing protests from school teachers and lawyers over a number of grievances.

Palestinian sources told Arab News that a strike by doctors might follow, which will destabilize the status of the PA.

The teachers’ movement called on parents not to send their children to schools, and on students to only attend when their demands were met.

On Sunday morning, thousands of students returned to their homes because of the strike.

Omar Muheisen, a science teacher from Al-Shafei School in Hebron, told Arab News that the rate of commitment to the strike on Sunday in the city had reached 90 percent.

“We, as teachers, are living in a difficult predicament,” he told Arab News.

“It is not our problem if the prime minister, over the course of a whole year, did not succeed in solving the problem of teachers’ salaries,” he added.

Muheisen said the salary was not enough even to meet expenses until the middle of the month with outrageous rises in prices.

He said that the strike came after authorities failed to implement any previously agreed terms, including a 15 percent bonus starting from the first month of this year, and that the strike would continue until all their demands were met.

Teacher Jamal Al-Qaddoumi said that the agreement that was reached stipulated that the salary be regularized and a teachers’ union should be set up, but neither happened.

Al-Qaddoumi added the current salary was not sufficient to meet the needs of teachers, and it was not reasonable for teachers to work throughout the month on 85 percent of their salary. Half of Al-Qaddoumi’s income goes on bank loans, and the other half on bills and obligations, he said.

The Palestinian National Initiative Movement, headed by politician Mustafa Barghouthi, demanded fairness for teachers in a statement on Sunday, calling for their demands to be met and the education system to be saved in the interests of students.

It pointed out that the education and health sectors are among the most vital sectors, adding that male and female teachers had always performed their national and professional duties, and that their role was vital for building future Palestinian generations.

It stressed the importance of reviewing the public budget and allocating larger budgets for the education, health, and social welfare sectors, as they serve the broadest groups suffering most from poverty and marginalization.

Shaker Khalil, advisor to the prime minister on economic affairs, told Arab News that the financial crisis engulfing the PA is complex, due to the decline in external support and the high percentage of Israeli occupation deductions from Palestinian funds.

Khalil indicated that foreign aid for the past year was less than $200 million, and the total deductions of the Israeli occupation from the allocations of martyrs and prisoners amounted to $584 million since 2019.

This exacerbates the government’s financial crisis and is reflected in the general budget, he added.

In a parallel development, the Palestinian Bar Association suspended work on Sunday for four days, affecting all branches of the judiciary, in opposition to the amendment of the regular courts’ fees schedule.

Lawyer Alaa Khaseeb from Ramallah told Arab News that the PA’s doubling of court fees five times will make it difficult for citizens, considering the financial crisis they are living through, to go to court to sue, instead preferring to pursue matters themselves, which will negatively affect the work of lawyers, of whom there are nearly 12,000 in the West Bank.

Khaseeb indicated that the standard case fee, which was $700, is to become $3,500, making it impossible for many citizens to pay.

Lawyer and human rights activist Amer Hamdan from Nablus told Arab News that the basis of the PA’s problem with teachers and lawyers is poor political decision making.

He alleged that the PA had raised court fees to obtain money from citizens directly, a step that will force people to tribal courts or to seek fulfilment of their rights by force.

“The PA decided to go into the pockets of citizens to solve its financial problem,” Hamdan told Arab News.

The Bar Council also pointed out that the judiciary was in crisis as a result of the policies of the executive authority and its disavowal of the requirements for judicial reforms.


Sokhna port welcomes first cruise ships amid ongoing development

Sokhna port welcomes first cruise ships amid ongoing development
Updated 05 February 2023

Sokhna port welcomes first cruise ships amid ongoing development

Sokhna port welcomes first cruise ships amid ongoing development
  • Movement of vessels ‘working perfectly’ alongside construction, official says
  • More than 3,000 tourists arrived by ship on Saturday

CAIRO: Development work at the Suez Canal Economic Zone is progressing well, a senior official said, with the new berth at Sokhna port recently welcoming its first cruise ships.

Walid Youssef, deputy chairman of the southern part of the zone, said that the circulation and reception of vessels was “working perfectly” alongside the construction work, which was nearing completion.

The development included four new basins and 18 km of marine berths, as well as commercial and logistical areas covering 5.3 sq. km, he said.

The area is served by a rail network stretching 33 km, which also connects to the Sokhna-El Alamein electric train service.

Youssef said there was constant coordination with the relevant authorities to ensure the smooth operation of the port as the work progressed.

On Saturday, the port welcomed the cruise ship Splendida MSC with 2,826 passengers aboard. It was en route from Yanbu to Safaga.

It also received the Emerald Azzurra, carrying 75 tourists from Sharm El-Sheikh, and the Clio, which had traveled from Hurghada with 85 passengers.