Lebanon prosecutor retaliates, prosecutes judge investigating Beirut port explosion

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Lebanese Attorney General Ghassan Oweidat sued Beirut’s Port Explosion Court and issued a travel ban on Wednesday.

Oweidat summoned Judge Tarek Bitar for questioning and charged him with “acting without a mandate”. This follows Bitar’s unprecedented allegations on Monday implicating the country’s elite in the blast. Those names include Oweidat. Bitar’s announcement has sparked a power struggle within the Lebanese judiciary and a wave of protests against Lebanon’s political class.

Oweidat called this development a “sedition” and accused Bitar of “rebellion against the judiciary,” TUSEN reported. He issued an order for the release of the 17 suspects held in pre-trial detention in the August 2020 blast that killed more than 200 people and devastated Beirut.

After a 13-month freeze on the investigation due to a legal battle with various ends of the political spectrum, Bitar took it upon itself to resume the investigation.

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Bitar promised on Wednesday to continue its investigation “until charges are issued,” the Lebanese state service reported.

Why it matters: The Court of Cassation, the highest in the country, has yet to rule on the reopening of the investigation.

Bitar is under political pressure to stop the investigation. Some see him as doing his job to the best of his ability, while others accuse him of being biased and politicizing his accusations – representing the prevailing divisions that have crippled Lebanon since 2019.

It is unclear why the investigations have resumed so suddenly and the circumstances surrounding the latest developments are still vague. But the move has rocked local public opinion, which is calling for answers.

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When the investigation resumed on Monday, Bitar ordered the release of five of the 22 detainees, all of whom were held by the system as a result of an unfair and incomplete judicial investigation. Oweidat, in refutation, ordered the release of all of them without exception and forbade them to travel.

Knowing more: The explosion at the port of Beirut in early August 2020 was the result of a large stockpile of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored since 2014. Ammonium nitrate is a flammable chemical compound used for agricultural purposes as a fertilizer with a high nitrate content. It can also be used to make explosives.

The container caught fire, leading to several explosions that ravaged the city and entire neighborhoods. More than 215 people were killed and about 300,000 people were driven from their homes, according to Al-Monitor’s report.

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General public sentiment and information from surveys show that the country’s political and security elite knew about the presence of ammonium nitrate, but did nothing.

Bitar is the second judge to hear the case after Judge Fadi Sawan, who led the first investigation. He was forced to leave following complaints of bias from cabinet ministers.

Both judges repeatedly tried to lift parliamentary immunity to legally prosecute former and sitting MPs, while indicting MPs, senior military officers and politicians.

This is a very sensitive politically charged matter. There have also been recent calls for Bitar to be replaced. If this were to happen, it could be the final blow to the investigation.

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