New stop to Beirut port blast investigation under Shia pressures
by Fady Noun

Taking an alarming turn, the investigation by Judge Bitar has been suspended. According to some sources, his family left the country fearing attacks. Threats from Hezbollah are one factor; the Shia group accuses the senior magistrate of having “politicised the investigation”. President Aoun defends his actions.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The investigation into the explosion of the port of Beirut of 4 August 2020 has taken an alarming turn.

Under increasing pressure from politicians, the judge in charge of the investigation, Tarek Bitar, was forced again to suspend his investigations on Tuesday, after he issued an arrest warrant against a lawmaker, and not just any, i.e., Hassan Khalil Ali, the number two leader of the Amal Shia movement, a former Minister of Finance.

Summoned for questioning, the latter did not show up but chose to send his lawyer. A few minutes later, Judge Bitar was officially notified that he had to suspend his investigation after new complaints were filed before the Court of Cassation by Mr Khalil, against whom he had just issued an arrest warrant, and Ghazi Zaayter, another lawmaker and former minister from Amal. 

Mr Bitar had already issued a warrant against the former Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, and four former ministers in order to indict them.

The incident on 4 August 2020 was caused by the explosion of a huge cargo of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse without proper safety measures.

The blast killed at least 220 people, injuring more than 6,500, some of whom will be maimed or disabled for the rest of their life. Several neighbourhoods in the capital were devastated, with hundreds left homeless.

On Monday, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary-general, launched violent verbal attack against Bitar, accusing him of “politicising the investigation” and calling for his replacement by an “honest and transparent” magistrate.

However, “There is a political decision not to allow the judge to work,” said Nizar Saghieh, director of the legal NGO Legal Agenda, quoted by AFP.

“The forces challenging him are exhausting all legal remedies at the moment, but it is clear that some parties are willing to resort to non-legal means to prevent him from working,” he added.

Last night, in an interview with the Al-Mayadeen channel, lawmaker Ali Hassan Khalil, who is close to Hezbollah, threatened a “political escalation, perhaps of a different kind” if the course of the investigation “was not rectified”.

In his speech on Monday Hezbollah's secretary-general himself alluded to a “different kind” reaction, without specifying which one.

A source close to the families of the victims claim that the judge’s children and family are no longer in Lebanon at present.

For its part, the government today decided to look into the “circumstances related to the investigation”.

At a Meeting yesterday at the presidential palace in Baabda, Shia ministers asked the president that Mr Bitar be replaced, a request he formally rejected.

The investigation’s new suspension has aroused the ire of the victims' relatives as well as the condemnation of several NGOs and the European Union (EU).

“The investigation should be allowed to proceed without any interference in legal proceedings and those responsible for this tragedy should be held accountable,” read a statement by the EU.