Lebanese sceptical as new judge named to lead port blast probe

Judge Tareq Bitar will become the second judge to look into the explosion of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser on August 4 that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and ravaged swathes of the capital.
Saturday 20/02/2021
Relatives of victims of Beirut port blast to protest, after a Lebanese court removed the judge leading the investigation into the explosion, outside the Justice Palace in Beirut, February 19, 2021. (REUTERS)
Relatives of victims of Beirut port blast to protest, after a Lebanese court removed the judge leading the investigation into the explosion, outside the Justice Palace in Beirut, February 19, 2021. (REUTERS)

BEIRUT – Lebanon Friday named a new judge to lead a probe into Beirut’s devastating port blast last August, a judicial source said, a day after his predecessor was removed from the case.

“The high judicial council… agreed to caretaker justice minister Mary-Claude Najm’s suggestion of appointing Judge Tareq Bitar as lead investigator in the Beirut port blast case,” the source said.

“The council summoned Judge Bitar and informed him of the decision to appoint him, and he accepted.”

Bitar will become the second judge to look into the explosion of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser on August 4 that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and ravaged swathes of the capital.

Bitar steps into the position after a court on Thursday removed Judge Fadi Sawan from the case, following a complaint from two former ministers charged with negligence over the explosion.

Rights activists condemned the move as the latest example of an entrenched political class placing itself above the law.

Families of people killed in the explosion protested on Friday for a second day, in an outcry over a severe setback to their campaign to hold those in power to account.

Around 70 people gathered in front of Beirut’s Palace of Justice on Friday, some burning tires to block roads or holding images of their dead relatives.

“Even when the case now goes to another judge, we will not give them our complete trust…the day that we discover a judge is being too lenient with the investigation we will stand up to them no matter who they are,” said Rima al-Zahed, 41, whose brother Amin died in the blast.

Sawan in December issued charges against caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers for “negligence and causing death to hundreds”, sparking two of the latter to file the complaint.

The court on Thursday found in favour of the plaintiffs who had questioned the judge’s impartiality in view of his home having been damaged in the explosion.

“No one in the political class wants an investigation like this,” Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Centre said.

“That would open up a Pandora’s box of justice and these are politicians used to getting away with major crimes since the Lebanese civil war…the judiciary is one of the most distrusted institutions in the republic.”

Lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh tentatively welcomed Bitar’s appointment, and said he had a good reputation as being competent.

But after Sawan’s removal, he wondered whether the new judge would be able to conduct his work “without interference or pressure.”

“Will he be able to cross the red lines?” he asked.

For some the judge’s dismissal is a blow, but Lebanese analyst Sarkis Naoum does not believe a domestic investigation will ever deliver any real results.

“Our state has become a failed state which means failed security agencies, failed institutions, failed judiciary and failed everything so I never believed that judge Sawan was going to reach anything,” Naoum said.

The probe into Lebanon’s worst peace-time disaster has led to the detention of 25 people, from maintenance workers to the port’s customs director, but not a single politician.

Diab resigned after the blast, but the divided political class has failed to name a new government to replace him and help lift the country out of the economic crisis.

“Those in jail are the small fish,” Naoum said.

With the lead investigator appointed by Lebanon’s executive, and the use of a court of exception, the investigation does not lend itself to impartiality, said Lynn Malouf, Amnesty International deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“I wouldn’t say this move took us back to square zero because we were always at square zero from the very beginning,” she said.

The court of exception is a special court set up to have jurisdiction over cases referred to it by the government such as assassinations of senior politicians and cases linked to political violence and terrorism.

“It was set up with the view of the politicians being the victims rather than the perpetrators,” Malouf said.

“A domestic-led investigation cannot deliver on justice.”

But so far there has been little interest in an international investigation into the blast. Hage Ali sees a different kind of search prevailing.

“A search by the Lebanese political class for a scapegoat…no politician will be indicted unless there is political consensus over a scapegoat,” he said.