This content was published on Jan 24, 2023 – Jul 20:18,
January 24, 2023 – 20:18
By Laila Bassam, Taymour Azhari, and Maya Jbeily
BEIRUT (Reuters) – For Lebanese desperate to hold accountable those responsible for the catastrophic port explosion in Beirut, investigative judge Tariq al-Bitar stands as a glimmer of hope that justice may one day be served in a country where impunity has long been the norm.
As for some senior officials in Lebanon, Al-Bitar represents a nuisance on the side that is making strenuous efforts to prosecute them over the explosion, threatening a system designed to protect the ruling elite from prosecution.
Al-Bitar, 49, surprised the Lebanese on Monday when he resumed his investigation and brought charges against current and former senior officials in apparent defiance of the country’s elite, including the Iran-backed Hezbollah group.
It gave new hope to those still mourning the 220 people killed in the blast even as the Public Prosecutor, one of the officials accused by al-Bitar, said the investigation was still pending, indicating renewed resistance on the part of the commanders.
“This is really a bold and brave (decision). He (Al-Bitar) has sought this before and has not succeeded. There is no support from political figures. You feel like he is on a solo mission,” Tania Daw Alam, who lost her husband in the blast, told Reuters.
She added that Al-Bitar’s determination made him “a hero of the modern age”.
The explosion occurred on August 4, 2020, in a warehouse in the port where hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored since it was unloaded in 2013, and it is one of the largest non-nuclear explosions on record.
For many Lebanese, the disaster symbolizes the spread of corruption and mismanagement of the ruling elite, which also pushed Lebanon into a devastating financial collapse.
After the explosion, the leaders promised to reveal the truth within days, but after more than two years, no one has been held accountable so far in a country where the judiciary is affected by political pressure, with many judges appointed by politicians.
Al-Bitar was chosen as the head of the investigation into the explosion in 2021 after his predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, was removed from the case in the wake of complaints from senior officials he had charged over the explosion.--
Al-Bitar continued to press charges against a number of senior politicians, including former ministers allied with Hezbollah. However, they refused to be questioned and denied any wrongdoing, saying he had overstepped his powers.-
The investigation was paralyzed nearly a year ago due to the retirement of judges from a court that had to decide several complaints against Bitar.
The Lebanese authorities did not appoint judges to replace them, which raised fears that the investigation would be forgotten indefinitely.
* Sacred cause
Al-Bitar is not allowed to make public statements, but in a rare 2021 interview he described the issue as “sacred.”
“I will go where the law and the truth lead me,” al-Bitar said in an interview with the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour. “Nothing will stop me. I do not know where the investigation will lead me, but I will not let it deviate.”
The armed group Hezbollah, which is the most powerful faction in Lebanon, accused Al-Bitar of bias and accused Washington of interfering in the course of the investigation, which the US ambassador to Lebanon denied.
A Hezbollah official had sent a letter to Al-Bitar in 2021 pledging to “uproot” him from the issue, after which the group’s supporters and allies organized marches against him that led to bloody violence in Beirut.
The pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar said that Al-Bitar had “went mad”. Wiam Wahhab, a politician allied with Hezbollah, called for Al-Bitar’s removal from the judiciary, describing him as a liar.
Al-Bitar, a devout Catholic from the Akkar region in the north, accused officials from across the religious spectrum, including Shiites, Sunnis and Christians.
Both Al-Bitar and Sawan have denied any wrongdoing.
(Prepared by Muhammad Attia for the Arabic Bulletin – Edited by Muhammad Muhammadin)