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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Tarek Bitar: a Judge Facing a Political Regime

Tarek Bitar
A photo of judge Tarek Bitar.

Ali Noureddeen

In a short time, the name of Judge Tarek Bitar rose to the fore in the political scene in Lebanon. Bitar angered the Lebanese political class because he dared to summon a former prime minister and a group of current and former MPs and ministers, in addition to several leaders and security services officers.

After he assumed the task of investigating the explosion in the port of Beirut on 19 February 2021, he came under attack by the overwhelming majority of the influential political forces in Lebanon, in addition to multiple religious leaders, because he summoned those affiliated with these parties within the political regime and its security agencies.

Those who attack him have different objectives. Some demanded to completely exclude him from the investigation and replace him with another judge. Others were limited to protecting those affiliated with them by all means.

Aside from the various reasons behind this political assault against the judge, we are facing one fact: there is a judge standing today in the face of an entire political regime. That situation is unfamiliar to the Lebanese, where subjugating all constitutional institutions, including the judiciary, to sectarian leaders is the routine.

The Sawan Experience

Bitar was not the first judge to handle the investigation of the Beirut port explosion, and his bitter experience was not the first time that the political class clashed with the Lebanese judiciary within this case. On Aug. 12, 2020, eight days after the port explosion, the Supreme Judicial Council approved the Lebanese Minister of Justice’s proposal, Marie-Claude Najm, to appoint Judge Fadi Sawan as an investigator in the Beirut port blast crime file. On this basis, Sawan received the file and assumed his probe at that time.

On that day, and as part of his investigations, Sawan issued charges against the then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who was in a caretaker capacity after his resignation. In addition, he charged the former MP and Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil (affiliated with the Amal Movement), the two former Ministers of Public Works, Ghazi Zaiter (affiliated with the Amal Movement) and Youssef Fenianos (affiliated with the Marada Movement led by Suleiman Frangieh).

Despite the allegation, none of them appeared before the judge, under the pretext of the constitutional immunity granted to them by law as prime minister, current and former MPs and ministers, which necessitates their prosecution through the Parliament. Noting that legal studies confirm that this immunity is supposed to include exclusively acts resulting from negligence or dysfunction in ministers and presidents’ work, not criminal acts they practice in the course of carrying out their duties, such as causing an explosion like that of the port.

In conclusion, after the defendants rebelled against Sawan, they began attacking him through a memorandum requesting his removal, with allegations of him violating the law and ignoring their constitutional immunities. After a fierce campaign against the judge, launched by parties of different backgrounds and under the weight of political pressure, the entire investigation was suspended for two months before the Court of Cassation decided to remove Sawan from the investigation file on Feb. 18, 2021.

Out of the Spotlight

One day after Sawan’s dismissal, the Supreme Judicial Council appointed Bitar as an investigator in the port explosion file, based on the proposal of the minister of justice, as stipulated by law. Bitar’s name was not alien to the file at this point, as his name was at some point a potential candidate to be the investigative judge before Sawan. However, he declined at that time for reasons related to his preoccupation with the files of Beirut’s Criminal Court, which he presides. After that, Bitar later agreed.

His colleagues suggested that the reasons for his approval this time were due to assigning another judge to assist him in the files of Beirut’s Criminal Court so that Bitar would devote himself to the port explosion file.

The decision to assign Bitar was met with relief from jurists and observers of the Lebanese judicial affairs. Bitar has a good reputation as a bold and impartial judge. Moreover, he is accurate in following legal and constitutional principles. In the same context, he is known for distancing himself from any of the poles of power in Lebanon.

Families of the victims of the explosion, who met the judge several times after his assignment, were satisfied with him assuming this task, according to the media reports. The families often described him in media interviews as a strict judge, keen to reveal the truth. That satisfaction was the judge’s weapon from the beginning in the face of all the political campaigns launched by his opponents against him.

Besides the honourable reputation, the main feature of Bitar in the eyes of public opinion was his ambiguity, as it is difficult to find him appearing in any television statement. It is also rare to find even written interviews with him in local newspapers, and his photographs are scarce. However, this feature was an assertion to the people of his fundamental quality as a strict and upright judge, far from the displaying exhibition that some judges usually seek, looking for fame or populist positions.

The judge’s keeping away from the spotlight was an expression of his commitment to the most significant thing that the judge is supposed to have: the obligation to conserve the prestige of his position and mission and preserve it from media rumours and the search for fame.

Clean Biography

Apart from the good impression left by Bitar’s assignment, his biography confirmed the opinion of those optimistic about him. Bitar was born in 1974, in the village of Aydamun in the Akkar district of northern Lebanon, to a middle-class family, most of whose eight children graduated from the Lebanese University (a semi-free public university). Members of this family were not known for any political affiliation, and none of them was embraced by any sectarian, feudal or regional pole.

It is even difficult to find a reference in their names to the sect of the Roman Catholic family. Being neutral from traditional leaders and mediation in the post-civil war era and staying away from sectarian fanaticism is a positive feature in an era dominated by sectarian political leaders whose influence is based on buying loyalties through political clientelism.

Thus, Bitar has a clean background, far from that muddy political regime, which later aroused the resentment of the Lebanese and led to the Oct. 17 uprising. He studied at the Lebanese University and graduated as a lawyer, then at Lebanese Judicial Training Institute, and graduated in 1999 with excellence. He was appointed to several positions within the Lebanese judicial system without an affiliation with any power pole or benefiting from any partisan mediation. He held the post of the criminal judge in Tripoli until he was appointed as a public prosecutor in the north until 2017 when he was named head of the Criminal Court in Beirut.

In all of these positions, he dealt with major criminal files that were the topic of public opinion without personally gaining any significant media fame due to his distance from the spotlight.

Investigation into the Port Explosion

Bitar realized the difficulty of his task from the beginning, so he spent about five months studying the case and investigating all the facts related to it before making any major confrontation with those allegedly responsible for the explosion. During that period, the judge asked more than ten countries to cooperate in investigating the source of the explosives’ shipment and the identity of the beneficiaries.

He also asked them to provide any satellite images, if available. At the same time, the judge began releasing some detainees in pretrial detention, as there weren’t any serious suspicions against them, to relieve the pressure of their relatives, who demanded the investigation be resumed and accelerated. During that period, the judge reviewed the details of the investigations conducted by his predecessor, Fadi Sawan.

Bitar set a clear method of action: prosecuting everyone whose documents prove his knowledge of the presence of explosives throughout the years preceding their detonation because they were aware of their existence and did not take measures to prevent such tragedy. For this reason, he began requesting permission to prosecute some senior security personnel, such as the Director-General of the General Security Abbas Ibrahim, and the Director-General of the State Security, Tony Saliba, which is a procedure required by law before interrogation. That step was enough to raise the concerns of the traditional power poles about the actions of Bitar, who dared to prosecute the heads of several security agencies affiliated with these poles, and who represents them in the state. Then Bitar proceeded to issue charges the former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, and a group of ministers who were proven to know about the presence of the explosive material in the port of Beirut, in addition to a list of security leaders.

Soon, the investigation began to face obstructions by all means possible. The Ministry of Interior and the Supreme Defense Council did not permit Bitar to prosecute the directors of general and state security, and the Parliament did not lift the immunity of its accused members.

Later, the accused began submitting requests to the Lebanese judiciary to stop Bitar and dismiss him from the case, which is a procedure that is usually followed by freezing the investigation until a decision is reached on the request. That request was repeatedly declined, but the defendants continued to absurdly submit these demands to undermine the investigation, as stipulated by the law, pending the judiciary’s response.

Finally, things got to the point of threatening the judge publicly through clear-cut messages. Then things moved to take the form of loud protests in the street, which were manipulated to turn into bloody sectarian clashes, intending to transform the port’s investigations into a violent sectarian dispute. Religious leaders began to join the fray through speeches to protect the symbols and leaders affiliated with each party.

In conclusion, pressure whaled on Bitar, who turned into a judge, solely burdened with confronting an entire political regime with its constitutional immunities, sectarian leaders, and influence within the state. Until this moment, it does not seem that Bitar will back down, and it does not appear that his opponents can convince the judicial authorities to overthrow him as they overthrew his predecessor. But the symbols of this political regime were able to protect their subordinates from the summons of Bitar through several manoeuvres over the past months to preserve the constitutional immunities of the accused and to refuse requests to prosecute them.

 

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written by
Dima Elayache
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