Beirut port blast probe suspended for a second time
The judge investigating last year's deadly Beirut port explosion had to suspend work on Monday, a court official said, after what rights groups and victims' families condemned as another blatant case of political obstruction.
In a second such suspension, Tarek Bitar will pause blast investigations until a court votes on whether to replace him in response to a complaint filed last week by ex-interior minister Nohad Machnouk, the official said on condition of anonymity.
Machnouk is one of a raft of top officials suspected of negligence ahead of the port explosion that killed more than 200 people on August 4 last year.
If removed, Bitar would be the second investigator to be sacked since the explosion amid widespread accusations of obstruction by Lebanon's political barons, who have largely dodged interrogation.
Bitar's predecessor Fadi Sawan was removed in February, after ex-ministers he had called in for questioning submitted a similar request for a replacement.
'Violating the constitution'
The suspension of the probe sparked an outcry from rights groups and relatives of blast victims, who accused the political elite of undermining the investigation into Lebanon's worst peacetime disaster.
"These brazen obstructions of justice should be a wake up call to the international community to authorise an international fact-finding mission," Aya Majzoub from Human Rights Watch (HRW) told AFP.
While many hoped Bitar would break culture of impunity, it is now clear that political class will not allow him to do so.— Aya Majzoub (@Aya_Majzoub) September 27, 2021
Stand with the 140+ victim families/survivors/rights groups demanding @UN_HRC establish a fact-finding mission into the #BeirutBlast.https://t.co/fAiqQqOAen pic.twitter.com/KMaxYizrgR
Ibrahim Hoteit, whose brother was killed in the blast, accused the political class of "deliberately wasting time" to thwart accountability.
"If Bitar is removed... we will burn down the country and we will turn to violence," he warned.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Monday he hoped the court of appeal would reject the suspension, because Lebanon "can't handle another judge being removed."
But he also accused Bitar of "violating the constitution" in the manner in which he went after officials.
"The constitution prescribes rules for the prosecution of presidents and ministers," which should be done by a special court, Mikati said during an interview with a local TV station.
"There are people who were accused of certain charges before they were even questioned," he added.
>> Read more: Who is out to get the judge in charge of Lebanon port explosion probe?
More than a year after the blast, the probe has yet to identify a single culprit.
The explosion was caused by hundreds of tonnes of haphazardly stocked ammonium nitrate, but what lit the fire remains unclear.
Top officials in parliament, government and top security agencies were all aware of the fertiliser's presence and its potential dangers, but failed to act.
HRW has accused Lebanese authorities of criminal negligence in their handling of the ammonium nitrate shipment.
Bitar in July demanded that parliament lift the immunity of Machnouk, ex-finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former public works minister Ghazi Zaiter so that they can be questioned.
He has also asked for national security chiefs and ex-army commander Jean Kahwagi to be investigated.
But parliament has turned down his request and top leaders, including the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, have accused Bitar of political bias.
Hezbollah has reportedly threatened Bitar, according to local media.
Amnesty International said Monday's suspension was an illustration of the "callous disregard" by the political leadership of the rights of the victims, and the United Nations Security Council called for a "transparent investigation".
This morning, the #SecurityCouncil agreed a press statement on #Lebanon.— Ireland at UN (@irishmissionun) September 27, 2021
It welcomed the formation of a new 🇱🇧government led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati.#UNSC also expressed once again the need for a transparent investigation into the 2020 #BeirutBlast.
Full statement ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/ixS6CuNpWw
Relatives of blast victims have been pressing for accountability for months.
A protest scheduled for Wednesday at the Justice Palace was announced before the news of the suspension.
"It could now develop into something bigger", Hoteit said.
Paul Naggear, who lost his three-year-old daughter Alexandra in the blast, said it was "disgusting" that the investigation was once again suspended.
"We are going to crank our mobilisation up a notch," he said. "We were more or less peaceful until now. I think this will change."
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