Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Beirut Blast: Justice in Limbo as Judges Row

For now, it appears, justice in the Beirut Blast case is in limbo.

Beirut Blast
Lebanese demonstrators lift placards demanding top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat be discharged and held accountable for the 2020 port blast, during a rally in the capital Beirut on January 28, 2023. ANWAR AMRO / AFP

Dana Hourany

Families of the Beirut blast victims rallied together on January 26 to support Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the port blast investigation, who had resumed his work after a 13 months hiatus.

After more than a year of vehement political opposition, Bitar defied Lebanon’s ruling elite by filing charges against a number of powerful political, security, and judicial figures, including Public Prosecutor of Lebanon’s Court of Cassation Ghassan Oueidat, head of General Security Abbas Ibrahim, and State Security agency chief Tony Saliba in connection with the blast, as well as former army commander-in-chief Jean Kahwagi, judicial officials said, without specifying the charges.

In response, Oueidat accused Bitar of insubordination and “usurping power,” ordered the release of everyone who had been detained in connection with the case, and imposed a travel ban on the detainees and judge Bitar.

Bitar was summoned to appear for questioning on Thursday, but refused to attend.

A group of activists, members of civil society, and attorneys protested in support of Bitar at the Palace of Justice in Beirut. Since the tragedy, which resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people and the injury of thousands, when tons of ammonium nitrate tore through Beirut’s neighborhoods on August 4, 2020, the families have been demanding a fair and thorough investigation.

According to Lebanon’s National News Agency (NNA), protesters engaged in clashes with riot police as they sought to storm the Justice Palace. Despite the families’ cries of support for Bitar since he was given the lead on the investigations, the families have yet to see progress.

Legal experts now consider that a “coup” is taking place in the courts, and that Bitar will be removed from the case as a consequence.

What’s happening?

After charging three former ministers, including former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, of negligence, a court ousted Fadi Sawan, the first judge designated to look into the explosion.

The most senior judge in Lebanon, Souheil Abboud, stated in November that political interference in judicial matters had created a chaotic scenario that needed a “revolution in approaches” to be resolved, according to Reuters.

Bitar was then brought in, only for his investigation to be halted after a barrage of lawsuits. The country’s Court of Cassation has determined that several judge vacancies must be filled first, which stalled the investigation even more. The minister of justice, as well as the minister of finance, must approve the appointments.
Iran-backed Hezbollah party and its allies had also launched a campaign against Bitar, accusing him of bias and demanding his dismissal.

On January 23, Bitar picked up the probe again and named eight more suspects. A source close to him told AFP that he “is convinced it’s crucial to hold officials accountable and finish his mission.”

Others conjectured that outside foreign forces were at play. But no solid proof has been offered.

Local outlet Naharnet reported that a senior security official claimed that the United States had put pressure on the Lebanese judiciary to release a US-Lebanese detainee in the blast case, including Port Official Ziad al-Ouf.

The source added that if Bitar, Oueidat, and another top judge failed to comply with the American demands, sanctions would be imposed on them.

The US had previously threatened Lebanon with sanctions if Ouf was not released, citing the fact that he had been held without trial for almost two years and almost six months.

In the week prior to reopening the case, Bitar met with two French judges to discuss his investigation. The delegation allegedly urged Bitar to resume work, arguing that detaining suspects without trial constitutes a violation of human rights.

Continuous grief

As protesters clashed with security forces outside the Ministry of Justice on January 23, MPs Waddah Sadek and Melhem Khalaf met with interim Justice Minister Henry Khoury and demanded that he takes action in response to the judicial conflicts between Oueidat and Bitar.

The MPs were reportedly assaulted by members of the minister’s bodyguards, who also attempted to take away their cell phones, local media reported.

Such clashes before the Justice Palace are not unprecedented. Earlier in January, the Beirut judiciary police summoned William Noun, Peter Bou Saab, and Bou Saab’s father for interrogation. They were reportedly brought into custody on suspicion of rioting, destruction, and breaking into Justice Palace offices.

The brothers of Joe Noun and Joe Bou Saab, who were members of the Fire Brigade team killed by the August 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion, alongside other families clashed with security personnel as they tried to forcibly enter the Justice Palace on January 10 to demand action in the stalled investigation.

William Noun was arrested and detained for a day, and his family home raided by state security for reportedly smashing windows at the Justice Palace during the protest. Thirteen victims’ families received extra summonses from State Security.

Crowds and lawmakers stood in support of the arrested family members, who were released after singing a pledge “not to repeat the act.”

Portraits of some of the victims of the explosion at the Beirut port were erased with water cannons two days after Noun’s arrest, according to L’Orient Today. The hand-drawn portraits installed by artist Brady the Black on the 9-month anniversary of the blast served as some of the only available visual tributes in Beirut to the hundreds of lives that perished.

“This move does not deter us as the portraits of our loved ones remain imprinted in our hearts,” Mohyi El-Dine Lazkani, member of the victims’ families, told Fanack.

“As for the detentions and arrests, they’ve backfired because trying to intimidate us has only strengthened our resolve to fight.”

The judicial battle

Judge Bitar is still the case’s lead investigator to date. Professor of public law Ali Mourad claims Bitar may have taken this unusual measure in an effort to “hit the system hard before he is dismissed.”

“I don’t believe that Bitar is protected by foreign parties in order to make such a move,” Mourad told Fanack. “Once replaced, a new judge will need four more years to advance in the investigation.”

The judiciary and the establishment, in Mourad’s opinion, are adopting this strategy to buy more time and put off the fact-finding mission in a bid to circumvent accountability.

Even while the governing class may be in charge at the moment, Mourad predicts that ultimately the balance of power will begin to shift.

“With the current economic state, the Lebanese are bound to retaliate,” he stated.

Jad Tohme, a lawyer for over 20 years, claims Bitar’s latest move may have exposed him to further danger. Bitar allegedly received a threatening message from Wafic Safa, the head of Hezbollah security, on September 21, 2021, saying, “We’ve had enough of you. We will go to the end of the legal path, and if that does not work, we will get rid of you.”

However, the attorney recommends the public to wait for the facts that the judge used to support his decision to pursue Oueidat in order to determine whether or not his decision was warranted or purely vindictive.

“It’s important to keep in mind that Bitar’s decision to take full responsibility for such risky actions could set a detrimental precedent for the judge who follows him,” he said. “His successor might not uphold the same values, but he or she might decide to behave in a contentious way that would benefit the establishment rather than the people,” Tohme told Fanack.

Unprecedented and unpredictable

Tohme argues that additional information is required to determine the veracity of the conversation with the French judges and the rationale behind reviving the probe.

He claims that Bitar’s attack on the establishment serves as a warning that their time to answer for their actions is drawing near—whether now or in the future.

Tohme and Mourad also concur that the country is at a turning point where unrest could break out at any time.

During the same week that the legal case was being contested, the lira dropped to an all-time low of more than 60,000 lira to a dollar, down from just 45,000 lira the week before.

“Lebanese have resisted against greater occupations, including the Israeli and Syrian occupation. This governing class will be driven out,” Mourad said.

Tohme argues that the confrontation Bitar is engaged in is similar to the struggles of the October 17 revolt.

“Although it is an unprecedented and audacious endeavor to uncover criminals leads in Lebanon, we must wait and see what will happen because nobody can foresee the future. Nevertheless, the country’s security hangs on the brink,” Tohme noted.

For his part, Oueidat stated that the victims of the blast “are not the first people to die, many others died in Lebanon over the years.” Bitar, on the other hand, asserted that he “will not let go of the case until the indictment is issued.”

In a bid to ensure a fair probe into the Beirut Port blast, a number of MPs and the relatives of the victims have called for an international investigation.

Additionally, on January 27 both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch urged the UN Human Rights Council to “urgently pass a resolution to create an impartial fact-finding mission into the Beirut port explosion.”

Whether their calls and those of the victims’ families are heeded, remains to be seen. For now, it appears, justice is in limbo.

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