Court enables judge to continue investigating Beirut port blast

Massive detonation killed 215, wounded 6,500 and devastated nearby neighbourhoods

Families of Beirut-blast victims take part in a protest in front of the port entrance on Monday to support public prosecutor Judge Tareq Bitar. Photograph: EPA

Families of Beirut-blast victims take part in a protest in front of the port entrance on Monday to support public prosecutor Judge Tareq Bitar. Photograph: EPA

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Lebanon’s appeals court has dismissed complaints of bias and lack of competence by three members of parliament calling for the removal of judge Tarek Bitar from the highly sensitive investigation of the 2020 blast at Beirut port.

The ruling enables Judge Bitar to “resume negotiations this very moment”, a court officer told the Associated Press after the verdict was announced.

Judge Bitar has vowed to hold responsible politicians who were warned repeatedly by port and intelligence officials of the danger of an explosion but did nothing.

Said to be the largest non-nuclear detonation since the second World War, the blast killed 215, wounded 6,500 and devastated nearby neighbourhoods.

When the legal challenge was issued last month, the investigation was suspended, prompting prime minister Najib Mikati to warn that a second suspension could be risky for Lebanon and eliciting protests from survivors of the blast, families of victims and human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The inquiry was initially interrupted in February 2021 when judge Fadi Sawan stepped down under pressure from politicians he sought to interrogate.

The appeals court also fined the three legislators, Nouhad Mashnouk, Ghazi Zeiter, and Ali Hassan Khalil 800,000 Lebanese pounds (€457) each on the grounds the claim was arbitrary.

Previous demands

Mr Mashnouk is a former interior minister who belongs to the Sunni Future bloc headed by ex-premier Saad Hariri. Mr Zeiter is an ex-public works minister and Mr Khalil a former finance minister. They are members of the Shia Amal movement led by parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri.

The three ignored previous demands by the judge to account for the neglect of 2,700 tonnes of volatile ammonium nitrate unloaded in 2014 from a leaking ship and stored in a crumbling port warehouse. Parliament rejected Judge Bitar’s request to interview them, claiming they enjoy parliamentary immunity and can only be interrogated by a special court.

Judge Bitar is expected to summon them again before October 19th as they do not have immunity while the assembly is in recess.

The Moldovan-flagged MV Rosus was travelling from Georgia to Mozambique in 2014 when the vessel made an unscheduled stop in Beirut to take on cargo for Jordan but Lebanon’s port authority refused to allow the unseaworthy ship to set sail. Abandoned by its Russian owner and his clients and ignored by the Lebanese authorities, the vessel sank in early 2018, 2½ years before the blast which deepened Lebanon’s simultaneous economic, social and political crises.