The investigation into the Beirut port explosion last year suffered another setback after a spokesman for victims’ relatives urged the judge leading the probe to quit.
Ibrahim Hoteit appeared in a video released on Friday in which he accused the judge, Tarek Bitar, of politicising the investigation and asked him to step down after “blood was spilled”.
The statements indicate a surprise reversal in Mr Hoteit’s position, prompting speculation as to whether he was under duress.
On Thursday, Mr Hoteit had voiced support for the judge while calling on politicians to allow for a transparent and independent investigation.
The video was released a day after seven people were killed in armed clashes in Beirut during a protest by supporters of the Hezbollah and its Shiite ally, Amal, to demand Mr Bitar’s removal.
William Noun, who lost his brother in the blast, said Mr Hoteit’s statement was not co-ordinated with the other families of victims, unlike previous occasions, and claimed the spokesman was pressured by Hezbollah to attack Mr Bitar.
“Since the video appeared, I haven’t been able to reach Mr Hoteit, although he has given statements to the press,” Mr Noun told The National.
Mr Noun said the video was aimed at sowing discord among the families of victims. His statement was echoed by Paul Najjar, whose daughter was the youngest person to be killed in the blast, on August 4 last year.
“We urge you all to consider it as being done under pressure to divide our communities and not to spread it,” Mr Najjar said of the video.
The clashes on Thursday took place along lines that separated Christian and Muslims districts during the 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
Hezbollah accused the Lebanese Forces party, which is Christian, of firing at peaceful protesters to incite civil unrest. The LF leader, Samir Geagea, said the fighting was between Hezbollah loyalists and local residents after hundreds of protesters stormed the area and vandalised property.
Speaking to a local radio station Saturday, Mr Hoteit denied that he was pressured to release the video, in which he accused the US of politicising the blast inquiry and appeared to be reading nervously from a script.
“I spoke in my personal capacity and not on behalf of the families of victims. No one asked me to say what I said. My statement was out of conviction,” he said.
After meeting on Saturday, the committee representing the families of blast victims said Mr Hoteit’s statements did not represent their position. It suggested he was pressured to change his stance and said it would continue to pursue truth.
But Hassan Amin, whose brother was killed in the blast, said he, too, had doubts about Mr Bitar’s impartiality.
“I’m not saying this because I’m a Shiite or because I reside in Dahiyeh,” he told The National, in reference to a suburb of southern Beirut in which Hezbollah enjoys widespread support.
He called on Mr Bitar to summon officials from across the political spectrum for questioning.
“Why is the judge selectively summoning officials?” he said.
Mr Amin called on Mr Bitar to reveal the technical findings of his inquiry and to pursue a transparent investigation. Otherwise, the judge should be replaced, he said.
“The state and the ruling class in its entirety bear responsibility for the explosion,” he said.
More than a year after the blast, it is not known what triggered the ignition of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the port for more than six years. Media reports linked the shipment to businessmen close to Syrian President Bashar Assad, a close ally of Hezbollah.
The explosion led to the resignation of then prime minister Hassan Diab and his government, plunging the country into political paralysis and compounding its economic woes.
Mr Diab along with four former ministers, including two members of Amal, have been indicted of charges of criminal negligence.
All five have snubbed Mr Bitar’s summons for questioning, arguing he had no authority to prosecute them under the constitution. They say they should be tried by a special body comprising senior judges and members of parliament.
Last week, ministers affiliated with Hezbollah and Amal asked the Cabinet to block Mr Bitar from prosecuting senior officials. Disagreement over their demand has led to government paralysis.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Saturday his government would not intervene in judicial affairs, noting that the judiciary has to take the appropriate measures.