The demonstration of the families of the victims of the Beirut explosion immobilizes the Palace of Justice

BEIRUT: Relatives of victims of the explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut in August 2020 staged a new protest in the city on Monday, amid growing anger and frustration over what they see as a “tergiversation” which hinders the official investigation into the explosion.

They blocked the roads and entrances to the Palace of Justice to express their “anger and deep sense of the injustice inflicted on them by all those who submit requests to dismiss the work of the judicial investigator judge Tarek Bitar”.

Their protest caused a halt to work in the courtrooms. The families accuse the authorities of “negligence, ignoring and covering up the crime and the catastrophe of the biggest explosion in modern history which afflicted Lebanon and Beirut”.

They said they would call for an international investigation “if stagnation and threats continue and the case is watered down”.

Bitar, 48, was unable to complete his investigation into the explosion and the role the actions of politicians and officials may have played in the events leading up to it. Those under investigation include a former prime minister, four ministers and a number of MPs, senior security officials and port officials.

The judge’s work has been suspended for more than two months. He took over the case last February after his predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, who had been removed from the investigation by the Court of Cassation following complaints by two ministers accused of negligence which led to the death of innocent people.

Since taking over the case, Bitar has been the subject of a smear campaign, intense political pressure and threats inside the courthouse from a Hezbollah official. The suspects in the case, including ministers and representatives, who enjoy parliamentary immunity, have filed dozens of lawsuits asking that Bitar be removed from the case.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah accused Bitar of “politicizing the investigation and exercising his discretion”. Party supporters staged protests in October demanding the judge’s replacement. Supporters of the Amal movement joined the protests, which escalated into violent clashes and resulted in deaths.

During protests at the Courthouse on Monday, families of victims of the port blast called on officials to make the necessary judicial appointments to ensure membership requirements for the Court of Justice’s general assembly are met. cassation. The court recently lost quorum when one of its judges retired, hampering efforts to resume the investigation.

A delegation representing the demonstrators went to the office of Judge Suhail Abboud, president of the Superior Council of the Judiciary. Members of the delegation said that when asked about restoring quorum, Abboud told them that “any legal action that can be taken to protect the investigation will be considered.”

The demonstrators carried banners denouncing “the corrupt political authority and state officials who water down the investigation file, manipulate the law and want to remove Judge Bitar, to whom all Lebanese entrust the task of revealing the facts and to punish criminal perpetrators, on whatever side”. ”

Another banner read: “No one is safe when 220 martyrs, 6,500 injured, half of the capital Beirut is destroyed and hundreds of thousands of citizens are displaced.”

In a statement, the protesters said: “Enough of wasting time, sometimes resorting to political immunity and sometimes accusing Judge Bitar of discretion or politicization in an attempt to impeach him and end the investigation.

“Today we affirm that we are behind the forensic investigator more than ever and we hold the accused criminals accountable for having done nothing but obstruct and evade justice.”

Relatives have expressed anger over the authorities’ failure to act on a warrant issued by Bitar against the arrest of MP Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister and political aide to Amal movement leader Nabih Berri.

They wondered “how this minister could hold a press conference a week ago without anyone touching him”.

A judicial source told Arab News that Judge Bitar will not be able to resume his investigation until appointments are made to the Court of Cassation so that it can make a decision in this regard, and ruled out the possibility that these appointments take place before the presidential election. in May.

Elna M. Lemons