Hezbollah pressures Lebanon's new Cabinet over Beirut blast probe

Militant group and its allies want judge leading the inquiry to be replaced

Anti-government protesters hold placards during a rally in support of Judge Tareq Bitar amid alleged Hezbollah interference in the investigation of the port explosion, in Beirut. EPA
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Lebanon’s government postponed its meeting on Wednesday after a heated session the day before, raising concerns of yet another crisis to compound the country's economic and financial woes.

Ministers affiliated with the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its Shiite ally, Speaker Nabih Berri, have since asked the Lebanese Cabinet to intervene to block the judge leading the investigation into the Beirut blast from prosecuting senior officials.

Judge Tarek Bitar has been the target of staunch criticism by Hezbollah and its allies who accuse him of politicising the probe after he issued arrest warrants for two of five senior politicians charged with criminal negligence in the case.

“After consultations between President Michel Aoun, and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the cabinet session that was scheduled for this afternoon was postponed,” a statement released by the president’s office said.

The meeting’s postponement will allow time for Justice Minister Henry Khoury to suggest a legal resolution to disagreements among members of the Cabinet, a source close to the president told The National.

Until then, another meeting is unlikely to be scheduled, the source said.

Mr Bitar on Tuesday issued his second arrest warrant for a senior politician in connection with the blast leading to a heated debate during the Cabinet session later in the day.

Hours earlier, Mr Bitar had ordered the arrest of ex-finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a member of Mr Berri’s parliamentary bloc. A similar warrant had been issued for ex-public works minister Youssef Fenianos, a member of the Hezbollah-allied Marada Movement.

Both officials, along with ex-agriculture minister Ghazi Zeaiter, also a member of Mr Berri’s bloc, and former interior minister Nouhad Mashnouq, snubbed Mr Bitar’s summons, arguing that he had no authority to prosecute them in line with the constitution. The indicted politicians instead insist on being tried before a special body comprising senior judges and parliamentarians.

All four officials have appealed to the supreme court to oust Mr Bitar. On Tuesday, he suspended the probe pending the court’s ruling. The court had dismissed Mr Bitar’s predecessor Judge Fadi Sawan after Mr Hassan Khalil and Mr Zeiater questioned his impartiality.

In their latest appeal to the court, both officials have accused the judge of breaking the law while Mr Mashnouq and Mr Fenianos have cast doubts of his impartiality.

The stalled investigation has prompted the families of more than 220 victims to accuse politicians of seeking to derail the probe and block Mr Bitar’s attempt to uncover the truth behind the blast that destroyed large parts of the capital.

The explosion has compounded Lebanon’s financial woes after forcing the resignation of Hassan Diab’s government. The former prime minister was indicted in the case but has refused to appear for questioning.

The explosion left Lebanon without a functioning government for a year, plunging the country into a political crisis that accelerated its financial meltdown. The World Bank said the crisis was one of three most severe since the 1850s.

Rosana Bou Monsef, a political analyst, says the latest political row is likely to fuel another “mini-crisis” but one that will be eventually contained.

“No major party including Hezbollah can bear responsibility for the collapse of the government under the current circumstances,” she said.

But the new political controversy might serve Hezbollah and both its allies and rivals in polarising and rallying their bases before the coming parliamentary polls in the spring of 2022, she says.

The government’s first political setback comes a day before the first visit by a high-level US delegation to Lebanon since prime minister Najib Mikati assumed his duties.

The group, led by Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, will arrive in Beirut on Thursday where she will meet civil society groups and government officials to discuss reforms and the coming elections.

The international community, led by the US and France, has called on the government to endorse reforms in exchange for financial aid and to allow for free and independent elections and a transparent investigation into the port blast.

Mrs Bou Mounsef says Hezbollah could be sending an explicit message to the international community before the US delegation’s visit that the party continues to dictate the rules.

“Why is Hezbollah attacking the judge and probe when none of its officials have been indicted?” she asked.

Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah criticised what he described as the US state department’s “interference” in the probe and its support for Mr Bitar on Wednesday.

“This is an open attempt to terrorise and prevent Lebanese officials from putting the investigation back on the legal track,” he said.

Hezbollah and its allies have threatened to take to the streets if the judge pursues his inquiry. Media reports have linked the shipment of hundreds of tons of ammonium that exploded at Beirut port to businessmen with ties to Syrian President Bashar Assad, a close ally of Hezbollah.

What triggered the detonation of the explosive fertiliser or why it was left sitting at the port for more than six years remains unclear.

Hezbollah’s political rival and leader of the country’s second biggest Christian party, said his party would peacefully confront attempts to subdue Mr Bitar.

“The president, prime minister and government ought to bear their responsibility in refusing to bow to Hezbollah’s intimidation. If they halt the investigation into the port case … they must resign immediately,” a prominent member of the opposition said.

Updated: October 13, 2021, 4:49 PM