Families of people killed in the Beirut port blast last year claimed victory on Thursday after a parliamentary session that could have changed the course of the investigation was postponed.
The outcome of the parliamentary session could have potentially replaced the judicial inquiry with a parliamentary one, much to the dismay of families of victims who believe that members of Parliament want to protect politicians under investigation.
Parliament speaker Nabih Berri scheduled the session following a petition signed in late July by MPs requesting a vote that would be the first step towards establishing a special court for trying ministers and presidents.
The MPs who signed the petition were members of Mr Berri's political party, the Amal movement, as well as its close ally, Iran-backed Hezbollah, in addition to former prime minister-designate Saad Hariri's Future Movement.
The postponement of Thursday's session “is a victory because their main objective was to set up a special tribunal for presidents and ministers which is just a way to bury decisions,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his brother, Tharwat, in the explosion on August 4, 2020. At least 214 people died.
“Parliament realised the judge is working seriously and is now trying to remove him,” said Wissam Lahham, a university professor and an expert in Lebanese constitutional law.
“We don’t have a state, we have gangs who are fighting us to avoid justice,” said Mr Hoteit, a representative for a group of victims' families. He said he suffered head, shoulder, legs and back injuries after an attack on peaceful protesters on Wednesday night.
The group wanted to camp outside the Unesco palace, where Parliament meets, to pressure Mr Berri into cancelling Thursday’s session.
Mr Hoteit said the attackers, who wore both civilian and military clothing, wounded at least nine people and chanted slogans in support of Mr Berri.
The attack took place one kilometre away from the neighbourhood of Ain El Tineh, where Mr Berri lives. A representative of the Amal Movement did not respond to a request for comment.
Victims’ families and activists want Mr Berri to schedule a session to discuss Judge Tarek Bitar’s request to lift the immunity of three MPs who are also former ministers. Two of the three men, former public works minister Ghazi Zeaiter and former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, are members of the Amal Movement. The other, former interior minister Nohad Machnouk, is a member of Mr Hariri’s Future Movement.
Parliament’s Administration and Justice Committee asked Mr Bitar to send more proof, which he refused to do, and legal experts say that he is not obligated to do so.
Mr Bitar, who replaced a previous judge after two politicians filed a complaint against him in February, has been repeatedly stonewalled in the past months after requesting permission from different government bodies to interrogate high-ranking officials.
Yet Mr Berri was prompt to schedule a session following the petition filed by MPs last month.
Amid intense pressure from victims' families, several political parties, including the Lebanese Forces, the Progressive Socialist Party and the Free Patriotic Movement said this week that they would boycott Thursday’s session.
The session needed an absolute majority vote to form an investigative committee in charge of preparing a report on the blast. Then, at least two third of MPs would have to vote in favour for the special court for ministers and presidents to be set up.
On Thursday morning, a quorum was not met and the session was postponed.
“We boycotted the session to protest against the fact that lifting the immunities of the three former ministers was not put on Parliament’s agenda,” said Alain Aoun, a member of President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement.
“The session was dedicated to a petition that we did not sign and that we do not agree with. We want the investigation to continue through judicial channels and not parliamentary ones,” he told The National.
Marc Saad, who heads the Lebanese Forces’ foreign media office, echoed similar views. “The purpose is to derail investigation, to obstruct justice and hide the truth,” he said.
Mr Berri can now reschedule the session at a later date. The vote is secret.
Local media reported that President Aoun refused on Wednesday Mr Bitar’s request to interrogate the head of state security, Tony Saliba, over a month after the caretaker interior minister rejected his request to prosecute Abbas Ibrahim, who heads another security agency, General Security.
Mr Aoun, the MP, declined to comment, saying he had not yet received feedback from the meeting of the Higher Defence Council, during which the president reportedly rejected Mr Bitar’s demand.
Last week, the head of influential political party-cum-militia Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, accused Mr Bitar of being politically biased.
Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer who heads the litigation department at Lebanese watchdog Legal Agenda, said such arguments are nonsensical.
“They accuse the judge of being politicised, but the petition signed by MPs relies on the same evidence as the judge,” she said.