Beirut port blast inquiry suspended for a second time due to legal action

Judge accused of bias and misconduct by two ex-ministers demanding his resignation

Anti-government activists and families of Beirut blast victims take part in a protest, in front the Justice Palace in Beirut, Lebanon on September 24th. Photograph: Nabil Mounzer/EPA

Anti-government activists and families of Beirut blast victims take part in a protest, in front the Justice Palace in Beirut, Lebanon on September 24th. Photograph: Nabil Mounzer/EPA

 

The Beirut port blast inquiry has been suspended for a second time after two ex-ministers mounted legal action to remove investigating judge Tarek Bitar.

He has accused them and two other former ministers of deadly negligence over the August 4th, 2020, explosion that killed 215, wounded 6,500, and devastated entire neighbourhoods.

Former interior minister and legislator Nouhad Mashnouk and ex-public works minister Youssef Finianos have accused the judge of bias and misconduct and demanded his resignation.

Mr Bitar has roiled the political elite by previously citing negligence on the parts of former premier Hassan Diab, ex-ministers, security officials, and legislators. The latter have claimed parliamentary immunity and none has appeared before the judge when summoned.

He has persisted as he regards the investigation as a mission he must complete so victims’ families will know the truth about the blast, said to be the largest non-nuclear explosion since the second World War.

Mr Bitar has been the target of a months-long smear campaign and al-Jazeera reported that last week that a senior Hizbullah security official threatened him during a meeting in his office.

“Judge Bitar’s investigation seems to have made some people panic,” Antonella Hitti, speaking on behalf of blast survivors and families, told France 24 satellite channel. Her brother, cousin and brother-in-law, all firemen, died in the explosion detonated by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate unsafely stored in a port warehouse.

‘Final blow’

Between the time it was unloaded from an unseaworthy ship in 2014 and that of the explosion, there were four Lebanese governments which, although warned of the danger posed by the material, took no action. President Michel Aoun was in office throughout the period in question.

While insisting Mr Bitar’s fate was a “judicial matter,” current prime minister Najib Mikati told Lebanon’s state broadcaster he did not believe Lebanon “could withstand the second judge being removed”.

The inquiry was first suspended in February when judge Fadi Sawan stood down after two other accused former ministers, Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeiter, from the influential Shia Amal movement allied to Hizbullah, complained of bias because Mr Sawan’s house was damaged in the explosion.

The Lebanese online media site Naharnet predicted that the removal of Mr Bitar could “be the final blow to the probe” as a third judge would be unlikely to “take up the job amid threats by members of the political elite who have closed ranks in their effort to block the probe”.

If Mr Bitar is removed, human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, survivors and relatives of victims can be expected to step up pressure on the UN Human Rights Council to form an independent investigative body, and on the Mikati government to co-operate, although proposals for an international investigation have been rejected by its predecessors.