The judge leading the investigation into the deadly 2020 Beirut port blast on Wednesday refused to step back from the investigation, dismissing charges brought against him by Lebanon’s top prosecutor in the politically charged case.
Investigating Judge Tarek Bitar this week challenged Lebanon’s established ruling elite by accusing several powerful figures – including Attorney General Ghassan Oueidat – of the blasts and by reviving an investigation that had been suspended for more than a year amid fierce protests. political and legal backlash.
One of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, the August 4, 2020 blast destroyed much of Beirut’s port and surrounding areas, killing more than 215 people and injuring more than 6,500.
Oueidat told TUSEN on Wednesday that in order to “prevent sedition”, he had “indicted investigating judge Tarek Bitar and banned him from traveling for rebelling against the judiciary and seizing power”.
But a defiant Bitar told TUSEN: “I am still the investigating judge and I will not step down from this case.”
Oueidat “cannot sue a judge who has already charged him,” Bitar said, adding that the chief prosecutor “has no authority to sue me.”
A judicial official said Oueidat had summoned Bitar for questioning on Thursday, but the detective refused to attend.
The judicial arm-wrestling is the latest in the mounting woes of crisis-torn Lebanon as the value of the national currency hit a new all-time low against the US dollar on Wednesday.
– ‘Mafia-style coup’ –
Authorities said the mega-explosion was caused by a fire in a port warehouse that had been haphazardly storing a huge supply of the industrial chemical ammonium nitrate for years.
Bitar resumed work on the investigation after a 13-month hiatus and charged eight officials in the blast — including Oueidat, General Security Chief Abbas Ibrahim, and State Security Chief Tony Saliba — with probable intent to murder, arson and other crimes.
Oueidat, who has rejected the allegations, on Wednesday ordered the “release of all detainees in connection with the explosion at the port of Beirut, without exception” and banned them from traveling, according to a court document seen by TUSEN.
The releases include a two-time US-Lebanese citizen, as well as the port chief and head of customs Badri Daher.
Some detainees were released later in the day, TUSEN correspondents reported.
Lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh said Oueidat had “no authority” to release the detainees and that his actions were akin to “awarding the harbor explosion case with impunity”.
Saghieh called the decision a “mafia-style coup on what was left of the rule of law” in Lebanon.
Bitar had suspended his work following a barrage of lawsuits, mainly from politicians he had sued on charges of negligence and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, which had called for him to resign.
A bailiff had previously told TUSEN that in 2019 Oueidat oversaw an investigation by the security services into cracks in the warehouse where the ammonium nitrate was stored.
– ‘Failed status’ –
Bitar plans to question 14 suspects next month, including five officials he had previously charged, including former Prime Minister Hassan Diab and former ministers.
Lebanese state institutions have been reluctant to cooperate with the investigation, which began the same month as the explosion, and the Interior Ministry has failed to execute arrest warrants issued by Bitar.
Amnesty International’s Aya Majzoub said Lebanon “breaches its obligations under international law by obstructing/delaying domestic investigations”.
“What about the rights to truth, justice and redress?” she said on Twitter after Oueidat ordered the release of the prisoners.
In February 2021, Bitar’s predecessor was removed from the case as lead judge after indicting several high-ranking politicians.
Relatives of the dead hold monthly vigils, seeking justice and accountability over the disaster, blaming it on an entrenched political class widely seen as inept and corrupt.
Lawyer Cecile Roukoz, who lost her brother in the explosion, called the situation “madness”.
“The investigating judge is supposed to decide whether (detainees) are released and the attorney general takes that action,” she said.
“They do the opposite.”
For Paul Naggear, who lost his three-year-old daughter in the blast, the release of all prisoners means “Lebanon has become a totally failed state”.