Lebanese political leadership has accused Judge Tarek Bitar of bias after charging senior officials.
Beirut, Lebanon – The devastating Beirut port explosion inquiry has been suspended after accused former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk formally notified the investigator of the dismissal of the case against him.
As per Lebanese law, Judge Tarek Bitar was forced to halt the investigation. He had already filed new requests to the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities to summon General Security Chief Major-General Abbas Ibrahim and State Security Chief Major-General Tony Saliba on Monday, and had to cancel the scheduled interrogations with two brigadier-generals.
The judiciary will determine whether Bitar will continue leading the inquiry.
Machnouk, a sitting parliamentarian, as well as ex-Public Works Minister Youssef Finianos, requested to remove Bitar from the blast investigation last week, accusing the judge of bias and misconduct.
More than 200 people were killed in the Beirut blast on August 4, 2020, after a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored unsafely at the port for years, detonated.
About 6,500 people were injured and entire neighbourhoods in Lebanon’s capital were destroyed.
The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions recorded and was the most destructive single incident in the country’s troubled history.
Bitar under fire
Judge Bitar has come under fire from Lebanese leaders in recent months after continuously going after senior political and security officials, including ex-ministers, former Prime Minister Hasan Diab, and senior security officials.
After filing his legal complaint against Bitar, Finianos accused the judge of “abnormal behaviour” and “double standards” while conducting the investigation.
Last week, a senior Hezbollah security official also threatened Bitar during an in-person meeting at the judge’s office.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused Bitar of “playing politics” on the first anniversary of the blast, while Grand Mufti Abdel-Latif Derian also condemned Bitar for subpoenaing Diab, describing the move as “reprehensible”.
The legal complaint on the grounds of “legitimate suspicion” is similar to complaints lodged by former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeiter against Judge Bitar’s predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, who charged them in December 2020.
The duo accused Sawan of being unable to conduct a fair investigation because his house was damaged in the blast. In February, Sawan stepped down from the investigation.
New York-based Human Rights Watch, legal activists, and families of the blast victims accused Lebanon’s political elite of obstructing the investigation and said they fear “total impunity” for officials involved.