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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Fadi Tawil and Kareem Chehayeb

Anger soars in Beirut amid standoff over port blast probe

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Scores of protesters Thursday scuffled with riot police in Beirut as they tried to break into the chief offices of Lebanon's judiciary, after officials moved to cripple the probe into a massive port explosion that wreaked havoc on the capital city.

Lebanon's chief prosecutor Ghassan Oweidat Wednesday ordered the release of all suspects detained in the investigation into the deadly 2020 port blast in Beirut and filed charges against the judge leading the probe, Tarek Bitar.

Bitar on Monday resumed the investigation based on his legal interpretation, following a 13-month halt over legal challenges raised by politicians accused in the probe. He also charged over a dozen senior political, judicial, and security officials, including Oweidat.

The recent developments have led to a standoff between the two judges, who each claim the other is breaking the law, crippling the country's judiciary, as its cash-strapped institutions continue to decay.

The probe has stalled for years, as it threatens to rattle Lebanon’s ruling elite, which is rife with corruption and mismanagement, and has helped push the country into an unprecedented economic meltdown.

Hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, detonated at Beirut Port on Aug. 4, 2020, killing 218 people, injuring over 6,000 and damaging large parts of the Lebanese capital.

Bitar told The Associated Press Wednesday that he will go on with the investigation “even if it is going to cost me my life”, and will only stop if the authorities formally remove him from the investigation.

Lebanon’s highest judicial body, the Higher Judicial Council, is scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon to discuss the latest developments in the inquest. Advocates for Bitar, which include most of the families of the blast victims, fear they may issue a decision to remove the maverick judge from the probe.

Protesters, including relatives of the victims of the explosion, chanted slogans against Oweidat and senior officials, and tried to break into Beirut's historical Palace of Justice. Several demonstrators were wounded as police confronted the crowds and beat some people with batons. Security forces also arrested an activist lawyer, Wassif Harakeh, but released him shortly after.

Activist William Noun, who lost his brother in the fatal port explosion, called for an international investigation to replace the stalled Lebanese probe.

“What happened yesterday was pathetic,” Noun told the AP. “We want an international investigation, or the judiciary should either give us a solution after the meeting, or say they can't handle the case anymore and leave matters into our own hands.”

Chaos also ensued inside the Justice Palace, after over a dozen legislators from reformist and traditional opposition parties met with caretaker Justice Minister Henri Khoury. The heated meeting about the recent developments in the Beirut port probe led to scuffles with the minister’s guards who allegedly tried to snatch their phones as they filmed the meeting. Some of them say they were attacked, and have called for Khoury to resign.

“These aren’t guards, these are the dogs of the justice minister,” opposition parliamentarian Adib Abdelmassih told the press after leaving the Justice Palace. “We were talking about the law in a civilized way and the parliamentarians were giving their opinions on the matter.”

Reformist legislator Ibrahim Mneimeh told the AP that Justice Minister Khoury said he will take a position based on what happens at the council's meeting.

“We told him that Lebanon is at a significant crossroads, the judiciary has shattered, and he has a responsibility to restore matters within his prerogatives,” Mneimneh explained. “In my opinion, this indicates that the probe and justice are threatened, and that this case could be terminated.”

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