Lebanon blast investigation: Judiciary torn apart by battle of wills

The search for justice for the victims of the 2020 Beirut port explosion has led to a battle for Lebanon's judiciary

Relatives with portraits of victims of the 2020 Beirut port blast protest outside the residence of Ghassan Oueidat in Baabda, Lebanon, on Wednesday. AFP
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A battle in Lebanon’s judiciary is being waged over the investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion which killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and levelled a chunk of the capital.

The family of the victims have fought for justice, facing stiff political resistance for the past two and a half years.

But in recent days, the investigation is back in the public eye.

Why has the investigation suddenly heated up?

This week ― after more than a year of being impeded by high-level political resistance ― the judge assigned to investigate the explosion, Tarek Bitar, unexpectedly resumed the inquiry, unleashing a storm of political anger against him.

He is the second judge to head the investigation. His predecessor, Fadi Sawan, was dismissed in 2021 after legal challenges by two former ministers whom he had charged with criminal negligence ― Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zaiter.

Judge Bitar has resumed the investigation with charges against many of Lebanon's most powerful figures. So far the list is:

  • Lebanon’s Prosecutor General Ghassan Oweidat and three senior judges
  • Former prime minister Hassan Diab, in office at the time of the explosion, charged with homicide with probable intent.
  • Former ministers Mr Khalil and Mr Zaiter, charged with criminal negligence.
  • Head of General Security General Abbas Ibrahim
  • Head of State Security General Tony Saliba

“Bitar is making a precedent,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Malcolm X. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, remarking on his perceived lack of allegiance to any political party.

In a country where Lebanon's judiciary is used as a political tool by the country's elite, “it's quite a daring attack considering this is an investigation which is not clearly backed by anyone major in Lebanon's political scene".

Why is the investigation such a powder keg and who is in control?

The resistance to Judge Bitar’s charges was immediate, leading to challenges from within the judiciary itself and a major legal tug-of-war.

“If the judiciary is not on the same page, the challenges we are seeing highlight the significance of judiciary independence and the need to reform the system,” Mr Ali said.

Lebanon’s top prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, says that Mr Bitar has no right to resume the investigation, which he deems suspended. Mr Bitar, however, cited studies that challenge the suspension’s legality.

On Wednesday, Judge Oueidat responded by ordering the release, “without exception”, of all those who were detained without charge after the explosion. Among those released was the former head of customs, Badri Daher, the most senior official detained in connection with the blast.

Mr Oueidat also filed charges against Mr Bitar for rebelling against the judiciary and banned him from travelling outside the country.

Mr Bitar has been accused, including by Iran-backed Hezbollah, of being close to the United States and conducting a politically motivated investigation. There has been no evidence to back up the claim.

The polarising investigation into the port explosion has cornered a subset of Lebanon's political class, among them the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group.

In 2021 Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah demanded Mr Bitar be replaced, saying the judge was biased and politicised.

“The targeting is clear, you are picking certain officials and certain people,” Mr Nasrallah said at the time.

Later, violence erupted when Hezbollah supporters and those of an allied political party, the Amal Movement, demonstrated against Mr Bitar in an area which lays on a civil war fault line between Muslim and Christian neighbourhoods — leading to armed clashes.

But Mr Ali, analyst of Lebanese politics specialising in conflict studies, said the political landscape has changed since the clashes.

With a presidential vacuum creating an upset in the country's confessional balance, the country's political actors are more likely to think twice about inflaming further tensions.

“Tensions are pretty high, and the impact of armed clashes would be much more dangerous,” Mr Ali said.

Instead, “opponents of the investigation are using the judiciary as an advanced line of defence".

Supporters of Mr Bitar, including many of the families of the victims, want him to continue the push for justice.

They protested outside Mr Oueidat’s house on Wednesday night, demanding justice through an unimpeded investigation. And on Thursday, protests outside the Justice Ministry led to clashes between demonstrators and security forces as judges deliberated the fate of the investigation.

“You are the judges who rule in the name of the people, you are implementing the agendas of politicians … what is this, justice or a theatre?” Cecile Roukoz, the sister of blast victim Joseph Roukoz, told media outside Mr Oueidat’s house.

What is Tariq Bitar investigating officials for?

There is substantial evidence over years that dozens of Lebanese officials were aware of the ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut port ― including ex-President Michel Aoun and then Prime Minister Hassan Diab. There is also evidence of officials requesting urgent action to be taken and that people knew the risks.

The port explosion ― one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history ― is seen as highlighting Lebanon's political mismanagement, crony capitalism and corruption.

The blast was caused by nearly 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate — haphazardly stored in a warehouse for more than six years — which ignited on August 4, 2020. The explosion killed at least 218 people, injured thousands and flattened much of the city centre.

An in-depth investigation by The National in 2021 found substantial evidence that numerous port and ministry officials knew the danger the nitrate posed and requested action. No one, however, accepted blame for the ammonium remaining at the port or its exploding.

What happens now?

Mr Bitar’s investigation may once again be on ice.

General Prosecutor Oueidat has said he still considers the investigation suspended, despite Mr Bitar’s legal challenge.

He and others charged in the blast have made it clear they have no intention of co-operating with the investigation as it stands now.

But Mr Bitar has a reputation for being a relentless prosecutor, unswayed by political pressure — an anomaly in a country where the judiciary is heavily politicised, appointments are made by politicians, and political assassinations are not uncommon.

Still, “Bitar knows the limits of how far he can get with this,” Mr Ali told The National.

Even within the limitations of the judiciary — “basically a political tool” — Mr Bitar has managed to reveal to the public “who is interested in pursuing justice and who is clearly intent on blocking the investigation", Mr Ali said.

Updated: January 26, 2023, 3:45 PM