Beirut explosion inquiry suspended after request to remove judge

Families of victims accuse political class of blocking inquiry into hundreds of deaths

The judge leading the investigation into the Beirut port explosion in August 2020 suspended proceedings after senior officials indicted in the case challenged his impartiality and asked that he be dismissed.

Judge Tarek Bitar will pause the investigation pending a ruling by the court of cassation after former interior minister Nouhaq Mashnouq filed a request to replace him, state-run National News Agency reported.

Mr Mashnouq had asked the court on Friday to appoint another lead investigator, saying that Mr Bitar has overstepped his legal authority by seeking to prosecute senior officials. He said they should instead be prosecuted before a special body that includes parliamentarians and senior judges, as stipulated by the constitution.

Days earlier, former public works minister Youssef Fenianos petitioned the Supreme Court to remove Mr Bitar on doubts of his impartiality.

The judge had issued an arrest warrant for Mr Fenianos after he failed to appear for questioning and summoned former prime minister Hassan Diab. Mr Diab was indicted for criminal negligence in connection with the case by Mr Bitar’s predecessor, Fadi Sawan.

Mr Sawan was removed by the Supreme Court after former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, both members of Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal parliamentary bloc, raised a petition.

All four ministers, along with Mr Diab, had snubbed multiple summonses, saying the lead investigator had no authority to question them. They were supposed to appear for questioning this week.

The suspension is the latest setback to an investigation that has been marred in controversy since the blast killed more than 214 people and destroyed large part of the Lebanese capital.

The families of victims and human rights campaigners have accused politicians of blocking the inquiry after Parliament refused to authorise Mr Bitar’s request to question the three lawmakers who were indicted in the case.

Activists will hold a sit in outside the Justice Palace in Beirut on Wednesday to protest what they said were attempts to obstruct justice.

The investigation into the explosion has yet to reveal the owner of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate that exploded at the port in August 2020. It remains unclear why the explosive fertiliser was left sitting at the port for more than six years with the knowledge of the country’s senior political and security officials.

The explosion led to the resignation of Mr Diab’s government and left Lebanon without a functioning Cabinet for almost a year, compounding the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.

Investigative media reports have linked the fertiliser shipment to businessmen who have ties to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, an ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.

Hezbollah has criticised Mr Bitar on several occasions, accusing him of politicising the investigation and recently threatening to remove him.

Updated: September 27th 2021, 2:36 PM
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