Lebanese religious leaders join row over stalled Beirut blast probe

Maronite Patriarch and top Shiite cleric take opposing stances over judge investigating 2020 explosion

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Lebanese religious leaders have joined the heated debate over Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the deadly 2020 port blast that killed more than 215 people.

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al Rai said he hoped Mr Bitar, whose investigation has been heavily impeded, would continue “his work to uncover the truth”.

But leading Shiite cleric Ahmad Al Qabalan accused Mr Bitar of sedition and hinted that the judge was empowered by external forces.

Mr Al Qabalan is seen as close to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed armed group and political party which has had some of its allies charged by Mr Bitar as part of his probe.

The investigation has faced a high level of political resistance in a country where the judiciary is deeply politicised.

Critics of Mr Bitar, including Hezbollah, accuse him of overstepping his remit and of being influenced by the US.

But his supporters, including many families of the blast victims, see him as perhaps their last or best chance to find the truth over the explosion, which injured thousands and destroyed parts of Beirut.

After a 13-month blockage caused by legal complaints against him, Mr Bitar resumed his investigation last Monday. He charged Hassan Diab, prime minister at the time of the blast, a number of former ministers, top security officials and judges, including chief prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat.

But a day later, Mr Oueidat ordered the release of everyone detained over the explosion. He also told Mr Bitar that the investigation remained on hold and charged him with rebelling against the judiciary.

That led to two days of protests outside the Justice Palace. Bodyguards of Justice Minister Henry Khoury were accused of assaulting MPs who had gone inside the building to press him for answers.

Mr Rai said he hoped Mr Bitar would “seek the assistance of any international authority that might help in uncovering the truth”.

Families of the victims and some MPs say they lack faith in Lebanon’s and believe international support may be the only way to find justice.

Mr Rai said judges “are overbidding against each other, impeding the investigations of each other, releasing suspects en masse and arresting the relatives of the port victims”.

The blast on August 4, 2020, happened when a massive stock of ammonium nitrate caught fire. The highly explosive chemical had been stored at the port for years with the knowledge of the authorities.

Updated: January 30, 2023, 11:34 AM