Court dismisses complaints against judge investigating Beirut port blast

·3-min read

The judge investigating Beirut's catastrophic port explosion survived attempts to have him removed from the inquiry when a court dismissed two complaints against him on Monday.

Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the probe into Lebanon's deadliest peacetime disaster, had to suspend his work last Monday after an ex-minister suspected of negligence leading to the tragedy asked a Beirut court to replace him.

Two other former ministers also suspected of negligence filed a similar request only days later.

The suspension of the probe drew widespread criticism from rights groups and relatives of blast victims against political leaders who had already removed a first judge, Fadi Sawan, in February for summoning senior officials.

On Monday, "the appeals court of Beirut, headed by Judge Nassib Elia, rejected the law suits filed" by ex-ministers Nohad Machnouk, Ali Hasan Khalil and Ghazi Zaiter, all of whom are also lawmakers, a court official told AFP.

"The court views that it does not have the prerogative to rule over this matter," the official added.

The ruling, effective immediately, allows Bitar to "resume investigations this very moment", according to the court official.

Bitar is expected to summon the three lawmakers before parliament goes back into session on October 19, after-which they will benefit from political immunity, he said.

The August 4, 2020 monster blast of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser at a port warehouse caused one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

The shockwave was felt as far away as Cyprus, entire swathes of Beirut were devastated, 215 people were killed and thousands wounded, some of them several kilometres (miles) from the blast site.

Lebanese authorities have repeatedly rejected an international investigation while also hampering a local probe that has yet to identify a single culprit.

For families of the victims, the smear campaign against Bitar indicates that his investigation is going in the right direction.

Antonella Hitti, whose brother, brother-in-law and cousin all died in the explosion, told FRANCE 24, “The threats against him make it clear that he’s doing a good job [...] People are so scared they’re ready to do anything to remove him from his job.”

>> Who is out to get the judge in charge of Lebanon port explosion probe?

Last month, parliament turned down a request by Bitar to interrogate the three lawmakers, arguing that parliamentary officials could only be questioned by a special court.

Bitar is seen as a neutral force in a country whose political landscape is rife with corruption and nepotism. He told Lebanese paper L’Orient-Le-Jour in an interview in February, “The Beirut port explosion case is sacred to me. We owe it to the victims to uncover the truth.”

The United Nations and France both pressed Lebanon to proceed with transparent investigations after the probe was suspended last week.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused authorities of brazen obstruction of justice and callous disregard of victims' families.

The relatives staged a protest on Wednesday, warning authorities against a repeat of what happened with Bitar's predecessor Sawan.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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