The relaunching this week of the investigation into the August 2020 Beirut port blast triggered an unprecedented impasse with the lead judicial investigator and top prosecutor slapping charges against each other. Critics called it a “farce”, but for families of the victims still seeking justice, the parody is wrenching and frustrating.
The investigation into the August 4, 2020, Beirut port blast, which killed 220 people, descended into a legal tug of war this week between Lebanon's prosecutor general, Ghassan Oweidat, and Judge Tarek Bitar, the investigating judge assigned to probe one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history.
The latest twist in the long-running quest for accountability began on Monday, January 23, when Judge Bitar relaunched the investigation, which had been suspended for more than a year due to legal actions launched against him by members of the Lebanese political establishment.
Judge Bitar’s decision to relaunch the investigation was as unexpected as it was fractious since the next day, he issued summonses to several leading figures in Lebanon’s political and security establishment.
The men who were summoned for questioning from February 6 included Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zaiter, two former ministers from Amal, a Shiite political party led by longtime parliamentary speaker Nabih Beri, a powerful figure dubbed Lebanon’s “untouchable” political player.
The other heavyweights on the chargesheet included former Lebanese prime minister, Hassan Diab, Tony Saliba, head of state security and an ally of the country’s former president Michel Aoun, as well as Abbas Ibrahim, head of general security who is considered close to the Shiite power axis comprised of Hezbollah and Amal.
Attorney general files charges against judge
But it was Judge Bitar’s decision to take legal action against Oweidat, the prosecutor general, that sparked a storm that has highlighted the levels of impunity, corruption and state collapse that has plunged Lebanon into a series of devastating crises.
Oweidat had earlier recused himself from any involvement in the blast probe as Judge Bitar had issued an arrest warrant for his brother-in-law, Zaiter, the Amal politician who was once Lebanon’s public works minister.
According to a judicial official quoted by AFP, in 2019, Oweidat had supervised an investigation by the security services on cracks in the Beirut port warehouse where hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored without safety measures since their unloading in 2013. The explosion of the ammonium nitrate led to the August 2020 port blast.
The tragedy – which injured thousands in addition to the 220 killed and destroyed downtown Beirut – is attributed in large part to negligence, corruption and a lack of accountability among Lebanon’s ruling class.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Oweidat responded to his own indictment by ordering the release of the 17 people detained without trial since the port blast and filed charges against Judge Bitar for "rebellion against justice" and the "usurpation of power".
The judge was also banned from leaving Lebanese territory and summoned for questioning on Thursday morning, said the Prosecutor General of the Court of Cassation in a statement to AFP.
Responding to the summons, Judge Bitar told reporters on Wednesday he had no intention of appearing for questioning. "I am still in charge of the investigation and I will not relinquish this case. The prosecutor has no authority to prosecute me," he told reporters.
By Thursday, the crisis had escalated with demonstrators gathering outside the justice ministry in Beirut to protest Oweidat’s “coup” against Judge Bitar.
As protesters attempted to force their way into the justice ministry, police used batons and tear gas, injuring at least eight people, according to local media reports.
Opposition MPs who arrived at the ministry to hold a meeting with Justice Minister Henry Khoury said they were accosted by Khoury’s bodyguards, who tried to take their mobile phones.
Meanwhile one of the 17 detainees released under Oweidat’s orders arrived in the US on Thursday, according to Lebanese daily Naharnet.
Mohammed Ziad al-Ouf, director of the security and safety department and a dual US-Lebanese national, left the country despite travel bans on all the released detainees, the report added.
First judge fired, second faces pressure
The latest developments, slammed as a “judicial farce” by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, has sparked the ire of the families of the victims, who were initially delighted by the relaunching of the Beirut port blast investigation.
"Just 13 months ago, we were fighting for justice to resume its course, so to see Judge Bitar back in action was a great surprise. His courage gave us hope in the Lebanese justice system, even if we never had much confidence in this criminal regime which has, from the beginning, done everything to neutralise the judge," said Paul Naggear, father of Alexandra, one of the youngest victims of the Beirut blast, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
More than two years after the port blast, the investigation has been stymied by political interference in the judicial process.
Shortly after the blast, the justice minister appointed Judge Fadi Sawan to lead the investigation. But Sawan was taken off the investigation in February 2021 after Oweidat’s brother-in-law Zaiter and his fellow Amal colleague, Khalil, complained that the judge had overstepped his powers.
When Judge Bitar was appointed as a replacement, he also ran into trouble when he attempted to interrogate senior political figures. Suspects swamped Lebanon’s courts with legal cases seeking the new lead investigator’s removal over alleged bias.
In September 2021, a senior Hezbollah official even threatened to "debunk" Judge Bitar on the grounds that he was politicised, while rumours were circulating that the Shiite pro-Iranian party was involved in the storage of the ammonium nitrate which caused the port blast.
On October 14, armed clashes left six people dead in Beirut on the sidelines of a demonstration organised by Hezbollah and its ally, Amal, in front of the justice ministry to demand Judge Bitar’s removal from the probe.
‘Rule of law is dead in Lebanon’
But Judge Bitar enjoys the confidence of many Lebanese, including the families of the victims who consider him a man of integrity and courage.
“I expected a counterattack by the prosecutor [Oweidat], but not on this scale, and certainly not to put an end to the rule of law, or what was left of it," explained Naggear. “Because that's what it's all about, the rule of law is dead in Lebanon. Faced with the implosion of one of the last institutions that still seemed to work, it's no longer Judge Bitar or even the explosions of August 4 that are at stake, but everyone and all the ongoing investigations".
Oweidat’s “offensive against the judge”, Naggear continued, “is actually aimed at those who still believe in justice in this country, and it shows that Lebanon is definitely turning into a banana republic".
Despite all the difficulties, Naggear wants Judge Bitar to keep at the job and not throw in the towel when "he’s faced with the prosecutor who is acting as a pawn of the regime, even though he had recused himself from the case”.
Judge Bitar’s handling, so far, of a very complex and politicised investigation has won Naggear’s respect. “I have confidence in him because he has worked tenaciously since he was appointed," explained Naggear. “He has not made any mistakes so far, and he does not hesitate to tackle the big fish. One feels that he has the support of the international judges who are following the case. I notice, for example, that he has taken action again in the last few days after the visit of French judges".
On January 18, Judge Bitar met with a French judicial delegation that came to Lebanon to investigate the death of two French citizens during the tragedy.
'Heading towards a direct confrontation’
The families of the victims, however, are worried about what will happen next. Will Judge Bitar be dismissed? How can he continue his work if he can't get his decisions implemented?
“To be honest, we don't have many cards left to play from now on except to put maximum pressure on the prosecutor to realise the scope and consequences of his actions that violate our cause and the very essence of justice in Lebanon," confessed Naggear. “It’s really the limit to see the judge in charge of the investigation being prosecuted by those he decided to prosecute in the investigation!"
Like many families of the victims, Naggear has pegged his hopes for justice on the complaints filed outside Lebanon, where the judicial system is considered too dependent on a political class that has refused to allow an international investigation into the tragedy.
On July 13, relatives of the victims filed a $250 million lawsuit in a Texas court with the support of Accountability Now, a Swiss-based activist group, against TGS ASA, a US-Norwegian geophysical services group, for contracts it reportedly made with Lebanese authorities connected to the port.
TGS ASA is allegedly linked to the chartering of the ship Rhosus, which contained the tonnes of ammonium nitrate that exploded in August 2020.
"We are heading towards a direct confrontation if Judge Bitar is dismissed from the case,” said Naggear. “We must mobilise very quickly to prevent this from happening and to alert the international community to the fact that Lebanon has become a totally failed state," said Naggear.
This article is a translation of the original in French.