Hundreds protest after Beirut port blast probe is suspended for second time

Politicians have asked for the investigative judge to be removed

Hundreds of protesters rallied in Lebanon's capital on Wednesday, two days after the investigation into the deadly Beirut port blast was suspended for a second time.

“We are here to tell politicians: stop your corruption and get out of the justice palace,” said lawyer Cecile Roukoz, whose brother Joseph, also a lawyer, died in the explosion that killed at least 215 people in August last year.

Ms Roukoz spoke to The National shortly after a handful of protesters briefly stormed the justice palace, hanging an enormous banner with photos of the victims and a message that read “you will not kill us twice”.

Protesters outside the building held banners that read “they knew” written over the faces of politicians and top security officials.

This was in apparent reference to the fact that they were aware hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored in Beirut’s port for seven years before the shipment exploded, destroying large parts of the capital on August 4, 2020.

One face that appeared on several of the protesters’ banners was that of MP Nohad Machnouk. A former interior minister, Mr Machnouk forced judge Tarek Bitar to stop his probe on Monday after filing a complaint at Beirut’s court of appeal, accusing him of being biased. Two other former ministers, Youssef Fenianos and Ghazi Zeaiter, have made similar moves, which automatically puts the probe on hold, said legal experts.

It is now up to the appeal court to decide whether to respond favourably to their request. There is no time frame for the court to respond. However, the court lacks the jurisdiction to remove Mr Bitar, said lawyer Ghida Frangieh, describing the move as “illegal and abusive” in a video published by Lebanese watchdog Legal Agenda on Wednesday.

“The investigation is temporarily suspended,” she said. “However, this is not the end of the investigation, but a stage in a long and difficult process to reach justice for the victims of August 4 and break the system of impunity that has prevailed for 30 years.”

Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The National that “the political establishment’s game now is to throw up all the possible obstacles in Mr Bitar’s way to delay and obstruct his investigation and prevent him from holding them accountable”.

Ms Roukoz dismissed the MPs’ appeals as a ploy to buy time until October 19, when Parliament will be in session again for the next four months. It means that Mr Bitar will need Parliament’s approval to summon MPs.

She said: “All of Lebanon feels that if politicians continue with their corrupt ways, that’s the end. We’ll all emigrate."

Other protesters outside Beirut’s justice palace echoed her views.

'So unfair, so unbearable'

“It’s just so ridiculous. They think they can remove a judge because he’s against them. It’s so cheap, so unfair, so unbearable,” said Gabrielle Macaron, a neurologist.

Parliament has rejected Mr Bitar’s requests to lift the immunity of sitting MPs in the past, arguing instead that a special court for ministers and presidents should be set up by the House to investigate the explosion.

But the court has not ruled once in the past decades and families of victims and legal experts reject such a procedure.

The constitution says ministers are tried before the special court only in two cases, when they commit high treason or are in breach of their duties. Mr Bitar is investigating crimes of homicide and injury which fall outside ministerial work, said Ms Frangieh.

“The choice is between a court and no court,” she said.

Lebanese media has reported that Hezbollah spymaster Wafic Safa recently threatened Mr Bitar. Videos shared on social media show protesters outside the court of justice chanting “Hezbollah are terrorists”.

Families of victims of the port blast normally shy away from politicising their protests, which they hold regularly. A spokesperson for the victims’ families, Ibrahim Hoteit, published a statement on Wednesday afternoon “rejecting any exploitation or politicisation of the blood of their loved ones.”

MP Alain Aoun, who is a member of President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, told The National before the protest that he did not believe that Mr Bitar would be replaced. “They can’t just get rid of him,” he said. “I think the debate will continue to focus on whether it’s the judge or Parliament that can investigate MPs or not.”

Updated: September 29th 2021, 4:43 PM