Beirut blast investigation resumes

On Monday, January 23, Judge Tarek Bitar restarted the investigation into the 2020 Beirut port explosion, which had been on hold for almost 13 months. The judge initiated his work by freeing some detainees and intends to bring charges against eight people including two high-ranking generals, according to judicial officials. This follows the aftermath of the massive blast on August 5, 2020, as seen in the image of smoke rising from the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon.

On Monday, the investigation into the devastating 2020 Beirut blast resumed its operations after being suspended for just over a year. The judge overseeing the case ordered the release of some of the detainees and declared plans to prosecute others, including two leading generals, as per judicial sources.

Since December 2021, the Court of Cassation – the highest court in the nation – has been obliged to rule on the legal opposition of three ex-ministers of the Cabinet towards Judge Tarek Bitar, consequently halting any of his work.

Despite the court not having issued any ruling, Bitar commenced work on the case again on Monday based on the legal reasons he supplied, according to the judicial personnel, who spoke on the condition of anonymity since they were not allowed to talk to the media. They did not expound further.

On August 4th, 2020, a tragedy occurred in Beirut’s port when a stockpile of ammonium nitrate, traditionally used as fertilizer, detonated, resulting in the deaths of over 200 people, injuries to over 6,000, and destruction of much of the city. This was one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in recorded history.

It was revealed afterwards that the ammonium nitrate had been shipped to Lebanon in 2013 and had been inappropriately stored in a port warehouse since then. High-ranking political and security officials knew of its existence, yet took no action. Many blame the tragedy on the Lebanese government’s longtime corruption, but the elite’s decades-old lock on power has ensured they are untouchable. The Aug. 4, 2020 explosions occurred when hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, detonated at the port.

It later emerged that the ammonium nitrate had been shipped to Lebanon in 2013 and stored improperly at a port warehouse ever since. Senior political and security officials knew of its presence but did nothing.

The judicial figures reported that Bitar had chosen to free five people who had been imprisoned for over two years. This group included Shafeek Merhi, ex-chief of customs, Sami Hussein, the top administrator of port activities during the explosion, and an employee from Syria. Nevertheless, twelve individuals will remain detained, such as the leader of the port authority and the leader of Lebanese customs during the explosion.

Just days after relatives of the 17 individuals arrested shortly after the explosion marched through Beirut in protest, Bitar commanded that a certain number of those detained be released.

According to Celine Atallah, lawyer for the former customs chief Badri Daher, who was apprehended at the same time as the explosion, the actions of Bitar constitute a significant infringement of international regulations. If he believes he has the power to release some of the captives, then he must discharge all seventeen of them.

Atallah, a Lebanese-American, declared to The Associated Press that based on international agreements that Lebanon had accepted and human rights regulations, the detainment of the seventeen individuals is illicit. He held the individual responsible for keeping them as hostages.

It was stated by authorities that Bitar has plans to prosecute eight individuals, comprising of two high-ranking figures in intelligence, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim and Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba. Bitar has already initiated legal proceedings against three previous ministers, who had persistently ignored requests to appear for interrogation and had even filled lawsuits to impede the investigation of the Beirut blast.

The judicial system has been challenged by certain political figures regarding Bitar, accusing him of disregarding the constitution or displaying favouritism. Furthermore, threats were made against him, to which the government promised to elevate his security in late 2021.

Some family members of the blast victims, such as Ibrahim Hoteit who experienced the loss of his brother, have challenged Bitar. Hoteit has stated that Bitar has become an impediment to uncovering the facts in the case.

Hassan Nasrallah, the influential leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, has been very critical of Bitar and has called the investigation of him a “big mistake” which he claims is unfair. Nasrallah has demanded that authorities take Bitar out of the picture.

The investigation into the Beirut blast could receive a fatal blow if the same fate befalls Bitar, the second judge assigned to the case, as happened to Fadi Sawwan, the initial judge. This followed two Cabinet ministers alleging Sawwan exhibited prejudice.


Image Credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla