Lebanon’s largest parliamentary party, the Lebanese Forces, has welcomed renewed international pressure on the stalled investigation into the deadly 2020 Beirut port blast that killed more than 200 people.
This week, 38 countries issued a joint statement expressing concern that the investigation had been systematically undermined, while calling for a “swift, independent” probe to be carried out.
Judge Tarek Bitar’s probe has been on hold for more than a year amid a series of legal challenges against him, including by former ministers he had sought to question in relation to the blast.
He reopened the case in January, when he charged senior politicians, judicial figures and security officials in connection with the explosion.
Soon after, however, Lebanon’s top prosecutor told Mr Bitar that the investigation remained on hold and charged him with rebelling against the judiciary.
Lebanon’s judiciary is deeply politicised. The Lebanese Forces, which has 20 MPs in the 128-seat legislature, is among the parties calling for international assistance to properly investigate the circumstances surrounding the blast, which injured thousands and wreaked severe damage across Beirut.
“The political situation here and the interference in the investigations led us from day one to call for an international fact-finding mission to support the Lebanese investigations,” Ghassan Hasbani, a Lebanese Forces MP and former deputy prime minister, told The National.
“We knew that the investigations here were going to be derailed by those who have been identified as culprits in the explosion, and in the events leading to the explosion, and even the events post-explosion."
The international statement, delivered by Australia at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, voiced concern that the investigation had not been concluded and had been “hampered by systemic obstruction, interference, intimidation”.
Mr Hasbani said it was a “milestone” that the joint statement the Human Rights Council had been issued.
“Definitely this by itself is not the end,” he said. "It's just a milestone and a starting point of getting the international community and the UN convinced that these investigations are being politically blocked, and that certain human rights, particularly for fair trials, access to justice and achieving justice, are being violated.
“Yes, the path is difficult. But the next step would be to go all the way to establishing a fact-finding mission to support the Lebanese judiciary system in achieving its mission and getting justice."
While Mr Bitar has received support from families of the victims, he has been accused by his opponents of bias. Among those who have called for his dismissal is Hezbollah, the Iran-backed armed group and political party.
The blast came after a huge stock of ammonium nitrate — which had been stored at the port for years — caught fire. No explanation has been given for why it was there and the stalled probe has only compounded the grief.
The explosion is regarded as a result of decades of mismanagement and corruption in Lebanon. The country is entrenched in one of the worst economic crises in modern times, the World Bank says, with much of the population pushed into poverty and the local currency hitting record lows against the US dollar.