Hundreds of Lebanese, including relatives of the victims of the gigantic explosion at the port of Beirut in 2020, demonstrated on Wednesday, September 29, in front of the courthouse to denounce the political pressure exerted on the investigation, which was once again suspended.
On Monday, judge Tarek Bitar, in charge of the investigation, had to suspend his investigations after a complaint filed against him by a former minister, Nohad Machnouk, who is suspected of involvement in the tragedy and calls for the judge’s relinquishment.
The explosion, which occurred on August 4, 2020 and caused by the storage without precautionary measures of enormous quantities of ammonium nitrate, left at least 214 dead, more than 6,500 injured and devastated several districts of the capital.
“You won’t kill us twice”
Blamed for criminal negligence, the authorities rejected any international investigation, before relinquishing a first judge in February in charge of the investigation, following the indictment of senior officials.
On Wednesday, some demonstrators entered the courthouse and hung a sign with photos of the victims, with the mention “You won’t kill us twice”. In front of the building, others, waving Lebanese flags, condemned the pressure exerted on Judge Bitar. “The people protect justice”, could be read on a sign held by the demonstrators.
“We have suffered for thirteen months from the interference of politicians and community leaders in the process of the investigation”, lamented to Agence France-Presse Rima Al-Zahed, whose brother, an employee at the port, perished in the explosion. “When I learned that the investigation had been suspended, I felt that we were betrayed again, that they were killing us a second time”, she added, referring to local leaders.
Judge Bitar’s predecessor, Fadi Sawan, was previously dismissed in February after senior officials were indicted. Since inheriting the case, Bitar has summoned ex-prime minister Hassan Diab and four ex-ministers including three deputies, including Machnouk, but parliament has refused to lift their immunity .
On August 26, the investigator issued an arrest warrant against Mr. Diab after his refusal to appear for questioning, and on September 16 he issued another arrest warrant against a former minister. for the same reason.
But Judge Bitar now risks meeting the same fate as his predecessor. The complaint filed by Mr. Machnouk calls for his relinquishment on the basis of a constitutional article providing that the prosecution of ministers and officials is solely the responsibility of the High Court of Justice. The investigation will thus remain suspended until the Beirut Court of Appeal rules on Mr. Machnouk’s request.
In an interview with local television on Monday, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said he hoped the court would reject the suspension because Lebanon “Cannot face the relinquishment of another judge”. But he also accused Judge Bitar of “Violate the Constitution” in the prosecution of certain officials.
For several weeks, Mr. Bitar has been at the heart of a smear campaign and has been indirectly threatened by a senior official in the Shiite Hezbollah movement, according to local media. “It is forbidden to threaten the judge”, was carried away Wednesday William Noun, brother of one of the firefighters who died in the explosion while trying to extinguish the fire at the origin of the huge explosion.
The suspension of the investigation sparked the ire of human rights organizations and relatives of the victims of the explosion as well as condemnations from Paris and the UN Security Council. “France regrets the suspension of the investigation, said the spokesperson for the Quai d’Orsay on Wednesday. Lebanese justice must work in full transparency, free from any political interference. Lebanese people have the right to know. “
On Monday in New York, the UN Security Council again stressed the need for an investigation “Fast, independent and impartial”. On September 15, more than 140 local and international NGOs as well as survivors and relatives of the victims of the explosion appealed to the UN for an international investigation, denouncing “The shameless obstruction of the authorities”.