The anger is intact, but a fragile dialogue begins. Families of victims of the double explosion at the port of Beirut were received on Monday, February 22, by Tarek Bitar, the new judge in charge of the investigation into the devastating explosion last summer of a gigantic stockpile of nitrate ammonium, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. The scenario of a vacuum was avoided: the magistrate was appointed the day after the challenge of his predecessor, Fadi Sawan.
This sidelining, decided on February 18 by the Court of Cassation, following an appeal by two of the former ministers whom Mr. Sawan had indicted, had raised concerns among relatives of the victims that the investigation was bogged down. . The delegation asked Mr. Bitar a form of ultimatum: three weeks to finish reading the thousands of pages left by his predecessor and then initiate the rest of the investigations.
Aged 46, Mr. Bitar enjoys a reputation as a judge of integrity. According to relatives of the victims, he pledged to keep them informed of his progress. His name was proposed – as already in August – by the outgoing Minister of Justice, Marie-Claude Najm, and obtained the approval of the Superior Council of the Magistracy. “The best response to obstruction is not to let the investigation stop,” affirms to World the minister.
But Mr. Bitar’s task – to break with impunity, to re-establish bonds of trust with the institutions by elucidating the responsibilities and the circumstances of the double explosion – is titanic. Reflection of political interference, the verdict of the Court of Cassation is likely to weigh like a shadow. The judge will work in an electric atmosphere, and in the face of multiple pressures.
Among the points on which it must shed light: the identity of the owner of the cargo of ammonium nitrate which reached the port of Beirut in 2013 and of those who facilitated its storage without precautions for several years; the quantity present during the double explosion on August 4, 2020; the trigger for the explosion. He must also establish the part of corruption, and that which could be due to international trafficking, implicating, according to revelations of a Lebanese television investigation, the presumed role of three businessmen close to the Syrian regime in the import of ammonium nitrate.
Other families are awaiting answers: those of the twenty-five detainees arrested by Judge Sawan. Among them, port and security officials, or workers. “Depriving them of a fair trial does not help to bring justice to the victims of the explosion”, recalled the NGO Human Rights Watch.
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