Prosecuted after being subjected to enormous political pressure, the independent judge in charge of the investigation into the deadly explosion at the port of Beirut assured Wednesday that he would not abandon his investigation. The Attorney General of Lebanon had decided earlier in the day to prosecute this judge, Tarek Bitar, responding to his own indictment against the backdrop of a judicial standoff that threatens to obscure the investigation.
The explosion of August 4, 2020, which killed more than 215 people and devastated entire neighborhoods of Beirut, was caused by the careless storage of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse at the port. The Lebanese authorities are accused by NGOs and the families of the victims of obstructing the local investigation and refuse an international investigation.
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On Wednesday evening, the NGOs Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to “urgently adopt a resolution to set up an impartial commission of inquiry”. “It is perfectly clear that the Lebanese authorities are determined to obstruct justice,” they said in a joint statement Wednesday evening.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price did not comment directly on these developments but called on Lebanon “to conduct a prompt and transparent investigation into this terrible explosion”. “We believe those responsible should be held to account,” he added.
“I am still in charge of the investigation”
Tarek Bitar had decided on Monday, to everyone’s surprise, to resume his investigation suspended for 13 months due to pressure from a large part of the political class, including the powerful pro-Iranian Hezbollah. He had indicted several high-ranking figures, including Attorney General Ghassan Oueidate and two senior security officials, a first in Lebanon’s history.
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In a statement to AFP, Ghassan Oueidate announced that he had decided to prosecute Judge Bitar for “rebellion against justice” and “usurpation of power”, a rare fact. The judge is also struck with a ban on leaving Lebanese territory, added the public prosecutor at the Court of Cassation. Tarek Bitar is called to appear Thursday morning.
“I am still in charge of the investigation and I will not divest myself of this file. The prosecutor does not have the prerogative to prosecute me,” Judge Bitar reacted in a statement to AFP. According to a judicial official who requested anonymity, he refused to appear on Thursday.
“It’s a mafia coup against what remains of legality,” lawyer Nizar Saghié, director of the Lebanese legal NGO Legal Agenda, told AFP. “We are in a state where the accused makes war on the judge in charge of the investigation. He is suing the judge who sued him two days ago, it is not legally possible, ”he added.
The explosion was blamed by much of the population on the corruption and negligence of the ruling class.
The prosecutor also ordered the release of 17 people detained without trial since the gigantic explosion, including a national holding dual American and Lebanese nationality, as well as the directors of customs Badri Daher and port Hassan Koraytem. These three people were not among the five detainees whom Tarek Bitar had ordered released on Monday, when he decided to resume the investigation. AFP correspondents saw several detainees leave the Rihaniyé center where they were imprisoned, near Beirut, on Thursday evening.
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This legal battle between the prosecutor and the judge in charge of the investigation threatens to overshadow the investigation into the explosion, and the release of the detainees has angered the families of the victims. The public prosecutor’s office “does not have the right to release. It’s madness,” said Cécile Roukoz, one of the lawyers for the families of the victims, who lost her brother in the explosion. “It is the judge in charge of the investigation who is supposed to decide on their release, and the general prosecutor’s office who executes. They do the opposite,” she added to AFP.
“Judge Ghassan Oueidate’s decision to release all the detainees and the other initiatives taken by the regime mean that Lebanon has become a totally failed state,” said Paul Naggear, who lost his three-year-old daughter. , Alexandra, in the explosion.