Lebanese judge at center of investigation into Beirut blast | News

Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanese judge Tarek Bitar must have known that the country’s ruling establishment would reject his surprise decision to continue the investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion.

Before the investigation was suspended 13 months ago, those charged were mostly lower-ranking officials, but on Tuesday it was revealed that Bitar had targeted a number of high-ranking officials, with charges against Lebanon’s former prime minister and chief prosecutor, among others.

The chief prosecutor, Ghassan Oweidat hit back, saying the investigation was still suspended by law and that he would inform the security forces that they were not following Bitar’s orders.

On Thursday, Bitara even called for questioning.

“Instead of me appearing before him, he will appear before me,” said Bitar.

Whichever direction the investigation now takes, it is clear that Bitar faces entrenched opposition to his investigation into the Beirut port explosion that killed at least 218 people on August 4, 2020.

The investigation into one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history has been stalled since late December 2021 due to lawsuits against Bitar – filed on behalf of top officials who were called in for questioning – that could not be decided due to his retirement. judges who have not been dismissed.

Since Bitar’s investigation continued, the Lebanese establishment appears to be uncooperative, according to Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“It is clear that they have already made a decision not to open an investigation without actually looking at the legal analysis that Bitar presented,” Majzoub said.

This view was supported by Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer and founder of the advocacy group The Legal Agenda.

Saghieh described Oweidat’s actions as “completely unacceptable”.

“From the beginning [of the investigation]he said he would not intervene in any way … because of a conflict of interest,” Saghieh said.

“Now that he’s been charged, he’s taking this back and starting to accuse the judge in response… It’s a very vindictive act.”

Oweidat did not comment on the case when contacted by Al Jazeera.

Majzoub said there was now a “tug of war” between Bitar and the people he accused, as well as the establishment.

“[The fact that Oweidat has been charged] it gives you an insight into the conflict of interest in the Lebanese system where a person accused in an investigation can decide whether the investigation will continue or not,” Majzoub said.

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It’s time to be “daring”

The continuation of Bitar’s investigation comes on the basis of a legal interpretation that challenges the initial suspension.

Although it is unclear how long Bitar planned to pursue the case, it is clear that he is ready to let his guard down.

Saghieh says it has become necessary to be bolder in interpreting the law.

“Before he stayed [quiet] and waiting, he now made such interpretations. That means it’s going into some kind of conflict,” Saghieh said.

For Saghieh, Bitar’s move is welcome.

“[Through Bitar’s actions, he is] saying, ‘I will continue my work to the end, regardless of the risk,’ and I think there is a risk to his life, because this issue is not easy,” Saghieh said.

There are a lot of powerful people who won’t let him do his job.

There has already been a stormy response to Bitar’s investigation. In October 2021, Beirut witnessed deadly clashes following protests against Bitar organized by Hezbollah and its allies.

Such events may not happen this time, as opponents believe there is a consensus among Lebanon’s political elite that the investigation remains stalled.

A Hezbollah spokesman told Al Jazeera that the leadership would not comment on Bitar’s work.

According to local media reports, Oweidat, who is Lebanon’s chief public prosecutor working at the Court of Cassation – which is effectively the Supreme Court – oversaw an investigation by internal security forces into cracks in a warehouse where ammonium nitrate was stored before the explosion.

Shiite Hezbollah and Amal fighters shoot during clashes in the Tayouneh area, in the southern suburbs of the capital Beirut, October 14, 2021 - Shooting killed at least three people and wounded 20 at a Beirut rally organized by Shiites Hezbollah and Amal movements demand the removal of the chief investigator explosions in Beirut.  (Photo by anwar amro / AFP)
Shia Hezbollah and Amal fighters fire during clashes in the Tayouneh area, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, on October 14, 2021. [File: Anwar Amro/AFP]

Possibilities of switching to indictments

The collaborative security force is important in ensuring the delivery of subpoenas and arrest warrants.

But if previous experience is important, that cooperation may not be absent.

If the institution still does not comply, or those invited do not show up for questioning, Bitar can consider them fugitives and, if he is satisfied that he has gathered as much evidence as possible within the limits of the investigation, proceed to release his indictment based on the information he has.

Beirut explosion
Families of victims of the Beirut port explosion in August 2020 hold their pictures during a sit-in in Beirut, Lebanon [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Majzoub said that the public will then be able to see the evidence presented against the mentioned figures.

“I think that if Bitar manages to publish his indictment, I think it will be a very positive thing at least for the right to the truth,” said Majzoub.

Even if the trial panel does not move the case to trial after indictment, the released evidence would help prosecutors in other countries, such as France and Germany, which have pending criminal cases following the deaths of their nationals in the explosion.

Accountability Now president and co-advocate for victims Zina Wakim emphasized that proceedings abroad will rely on Bitar’s investigations and that there is still pressure for a United Nations fact-finding mission.

“The very design of every institution [in Lebanon] it was made to maximize opacity, dilute responsibilities and therefore ensure impunity for the corruption of the political elite,” Wakim told Al Jazeera.

“In our opinion, the victims of the explosion have no other option but to circumvent the judiciary’s snub by initiating proceedings outside of Lebanon.”

And while Bitar may not be able to push through his investigation, the news of his attempts was welcomed by family members of the victims of the port tragedy.

As the investigation has progressed, protests from family members have grown increasingly desperate, leading to the questioning — and even arrest — of relatives of the victims earlier this month.

Tania Daou-Alam, a lawyer, was by her husband’s side when he died in the explosion, which occurred after ammonium nitrate improperly stored at the port exploded, causing damage to large parts of the city.

She believes that the continuation of the investigation is promising, but that Bitar will be met “aggressively”.

“Every step forward in exposing the culprits and obstructionists is a step forward in the fight against impunity,” Daou-Alam told Al Jazeera.

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