Beirut blast probe: what's the snag?

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·4-min read
A supporter of Hezbollah and Amal carries a portrait of Judge Tarek Bitar in Beirut on October 14, 2021, during a protest to demand his dismissal (AFP/JOSEPH EID)
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  • Tarek Bitar
    Lebanese judge

Sixteen months since a monster blast ripped through the Lebanese capital, the judge investigating the tragedy has been beset by numerous lawsuits, mostly filed against him by officials demanding his removal.

With judge Tarek Bitar forced to suspend his probe for a fourth time on Thursday in the face of such complaints, here is a look at the increasingly complex web of court challenges obstructing investigations into Lebanon's worst peacetime disaster.

- What has prevented the probe? -

The August 4, 2020 explosion of a shipment of ammonium nitrate fertiliser stored haphazardly in a port warehouse for years killed at least 215 people and disfigured the capital.

Top political and security officials were aware of the threat posed by the stored chemicals but failed to take action.

In February, Fadi Sawan, the judge initially appointed to lead the probe, was removed from the case after chasing some of the country's top brass.

Bitar succeeded him, and has since faced similar hurdles amid a concerted political campaign to force his removal.

Officials he had summoned on charges of negligence have filed more than a dozen lawsuits against him, forcing him to suspend his probe four times.

They include several ex-ministers, two of whom were hit with arrest warrants in recent months after they failed to show up for questioning.

Attempts by officials to dodge accountability have been aided by the state.

Parliament has refused to lift immunity granted to lawmakers and top officials have turned down requests to interrogate top security officials.

The interior ministry has also failed to implement arrest warrants issued by Bitar, further undermining his investigation.

- What is the political fallout? -

Attempts to obstruct Bitar's work have spilled onto the streets, with the powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement staging a rally in Beirut in October demanding his removal.

The protest turned Beirut into a war zone, with live fire exchanges between rival parties leaving seven dead.

Hezbollah and its Amal movement allies are spearheading efforts to replace Bitar.

Their affiliates in cabinet have said they would boycott sessions until an official stance is taken on his replacement.

As a result, Lebanon's fragile government, formed in September to stem the country's worst-ever financial crisis, has failed to meet since October.

In a country where political leaders determine judicial appointments, including in top courts, there is little room for the judiciary to work against Lebanon's ruling elite.

Bitar has been forced to suspend his probe repeatedly over lawsuits filed by officials he had called in for questioning on suspicion of negligence.

A judicial source said the number of lawsuits filed against Bitar now stands at 18.

Some of the judges who turned down requests to replace Bitar have since been hit with lawsuits themselves by the same officials, and they have in turn mobilised affiliated judges at every opportunity.

Last month, a judge backed by Hezbollah and Amal processed a lawsuit filed against Bitar that forced a third suspension in the investigation.

This created a rift within judicial circles, with many arguing that the judge in question had no authority over the Beirut blast case.

Following accusations of political "hijacking", a legal complaint filed against the Shiite judge forced him to stand down.

- What is the judiciary's role? -

The lawsuits against Bitar will inevitably delay the presentation of his findings which were previously expected by the year's end, according to a judicial source.

In a country where even high-profile assassinations and bombings go unpunished, many fear a Lebanon-led blast probe will fail to hold anyone to account.

"The judicial body in Lebanon is sick," a former judge told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"Some judges are merely an echo chamber for the political leaders that appointed them," the same judge said.

In a joint letter sent to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September, rights groups and relatives of blast victims said "flagrant political interference, immunity for high-level political officials, and lack of respect for fair trial" have rendered the Beirut blast probe incapable of delivering justice.

Nizar Saghieh, who heads the local organisation Legal Agenda, said divisions over Bitar's fate expose deeper rifts within the state.

"The democratic components of the Lebanese state are supporting judges working to tighten the space for impunity, while others are backing judges that are working to preserve this system," he wrote on social media.

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