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Beirut explosion probe suspended - again - after former ministers file lawsuits

Lead judge halts investigation as Hezbollah chief accuses him of 'politicisation' and 'obscuring the truth'
Demonstrators and families of the Beirut blast victims chant slogans during a protest on 13 July 2021 (AFP)

The judicial probe into last year’s Beirut port explosion has been forced to suspend hearings on Tuesday, following lawsuits filed by some of Lebanon's former ministers who had been summoned for interrogation as part of the investigation. 

Tarek Bitar, the Lebanese judge in charge of the case, paused the investigation into the 4 August 2020 explosion - which left more than 200 dead, injured thousands and devastated entire neighbourhoods of the capital - after former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former public works minister Ghazi Zaiter mounted legal complaints against being officially questioned.

'The accused politicians are case shopping, filing all the complaints they can think of to suspend the investigation, in every court available to them, hoping that something sticks'

- Aya Majzoub, Human Rights Watch

The probe was similarly frozen for one week in late September after former interior minister Nohad Machnouk also filed a lawsuit. The complaint was eventually rejected by the court.

The halt comes a day after Hezbollah movement chief Hassan Nasrallah called on Bitar to be replaced, accusing him of being biased and politicised. 

"This judge is working toward political goals, taking advantage of the blood of the martyrs, the wounded and this tragedy," Nasrallah said in a televised speech on Monday. 

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"We had warned him not to be biased and not to politicise the investigation, before saying he should leave, but it was in vain. Now he is approaching it as though he is the master of the case."

The Iran-backed leader added that Bitar "won't deliver the truth, nor will he deliver justice; only injustice and an obscuring of the truth".

'Evading justice'

Bitar’s attempts to question former and current Lebanese officials on suspicion of negligence, including former prime minister Hassan Diab, have been consistently blocked by the country's political class. 

The judge issued an arrest warrant against Khalil, who did not show up for questioning on Tuesday, instead sending his attorney. 

Last month, Bitar also issued an arrest warrant for former public works and transport minister, Youssef Fenianos, who likewise failed to appear for questioning. 

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The judicial probe into the explosion, one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts ever recorded, has so far made no progress, angering many Lebanese including families of the victims. To date, the investigation is yet to identify a single culprit.

Bitar’s predecessor Fadi Sawan was removed as lead judge in February after a former official charged with negligence filed a complaint against him.

Activists and human rights groups have condemned the latest suspension as an attempt by politicians to evade justice and derail the official inquiry. Many believe that Bitar will meet the same fate as his predecessor.

"The course of action taken by the politicians in the Beirut blast case is becoming a parody of itself," Aya Majzoub of Human Rights Watch told AFP.

"The accused politicians are case shopping, filing all the complaints they can think of to suspend the investigation, in every court available to them, hoping that something sticks.

"It is a ludicrous attempt to evade justice."

More than 140 human rights groups, survivors, and relatives of the victims of the Beirut port blast have called for a UN-backed international, independent, and impartial probe into the disaster - arguing that the domestic investigation has been repeatedly obstructed and "failed in meeting the benchmarks, based on international standards, that were laid out by the UN Special Procedures".

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