Beirut blast families divided as probe suspended again

Families held two rival vigils for first time in 15 months after push by Hezbollah to remove lead investigating judge

Two groups mourning the victims of the deadly Beirut blast on Thursday held rival vigils for those lost in the explosion for the first time in 15 months after the judge investigating the incident was temporarily suspended from the case.

The temporary suspension comes after a month-long, Hezbollah-led campaign to remove the investigating judge.

Hezbollah accused the judge of bias because he summoned politicians that are close to the group.

About 50 people gathered on the motorway near the port in support of judge Tarek Bitar. At the entrance of the port, about 20 people, mostly Shiite family members of victims who broke away from the main group last month, sided with Hezbollah against Mr Bitar.

“Judge Bitar was the last hope for this case in local courts,” said Paul Naggear, whose daughter, Alexandra, died in the explosion last year.

“It’s going to be very tough now.”

Every fourth of the month for the past 14 months, the families of the Beirut blast victims have held a vigil near the port to commemorate their relatives and demand accountability and justice.

But for the first time in 15 months, the families held two rival vigils a few hundred metres away from one another.

The rival commemorations are a reflection of how divided Lebanese society has become over the investigation, especially after Hezbollah began a campaign to remove the lead investigative judge.

Last month, Hezbollah supporters took to the streets of Beirut to demonstrate against Mr Bitar. The protest turned deadly when unknown gunmen killed seven people, all of them supporters of Hezbollah or its ally Amal.

The former spokesman for the families of the victims, Ibrahim Hoteit, broke away from the group shortly after the clashes, siding with Hezbollah and retracting his prior statements in favour of Mr Bitar.

The divisions follow sectarian lines. Most Lebanese political parties represent one of the country's three main sects: Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims.

The group led by Mr Hoteit is mostly Shiite and follows Hezbollah's line on the judge, while the rest of the families are from mixed backgrounds.

Mr Hoteit denies having been threatened to change his position.

“Families from certain sects decided to just leave the group and do the monthly commemoration somewhere else,” he said at the entrance of the port.

“Our only disagreement is very minor; it’s about our position on the judge and it didn’t require all this fuss.”

Families of the victims from the main group have expressed concern that the Shiite families who broke away had been coerced by Iran-backed Hezbollah and Amal.

“We have a relative of a victim who is himself a victim of this government,” Mr Naggear's wife, Tracy, said of Mr Hoteit. She added that it was unfortunate that the families were now divided in two groups.

“I really doubt that this guy could be against judge Bitar with everything he’s done for us,” she said.

“This judge was there for us from day one so now we are there for him as well.”

Mr Bitar united the Lebanese political establishment against him when he summoned powerful politicians, mostly aligned with Hezbollah, to appear before him in the investigation into the Beirut blast.

The explosion killed more than 215 people, injured more than 6,500 and destroyed large parts of the Lebanese capital.

More than a year after the blast, no one has been held to account as powerful current and former officials have repeatedly blocked the case.

Mr Bitar’s predecessor was removed in February after a former minister he had summoned requested his removal.

And now Mr Bitar may face the same fate.

The Court of Appeals accepted to study a request to remove Mr Bitar filed by former minister Yousef Fenianos, who is under investigation for his role in the blast. He failed to appear for his interrogation.

The probe has been suspended while they study a request to remove the judge, which could take months.

Aya Majzoub of Human Rights Watch said on Twitter that the decision was “akin to a death sentence for the Beirut blast probe".

Updated: November 06, 2021, 6:35 AM