People killed and wounded in Beirut during protest against port explosion investigation
Snipers killed at least five people at the Tayouneh roundabout, one of the hot spots of Lebanon’s civil war. Judge Bitar’s investigation is at the centre of the tensions. His work is bringing to light the responsibilities of the Shia party in the disaster of August 2020.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Scenes of violence reminiscent of the civil war (1975-1990) played out yesterday at the Tayouneh roundabout, one of the iconic sites of that war, a hot spot of the first demarcation line that emerged during the conflict.
The boulevard that runs through it separates the predominantly Christian neighbourhoods of Ain El Remmaneh from the predominantly Shia neighbourhood of Chyah.
The violence broke out around 11 am, credible sources report, when shots were fired from some building roofs against Hezbollah and Amal protesters on their way to the courthouse to obtain through street pressure the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar from the investigation into the explosion at the Port of Beirut on 4 August 2020, an event that devastated the capital.
Following the first shots, snipers and Shia militiamen exchanged heavy fire, even using B-7 grenades, for three hours, this despite a massive army presence. The tragic toll was five people killed and 20 wounded, this according to hospital sources, cited by news agencies.
The shootout sparked panic in the streets and surrounding neighbourhoods. The great school of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, located on the edge of Tayouneh Square, was evacuated amid panic.
Civil Defence personnel helped distraught residents, evacuating them from exposed buildings. Ambulances poured in to pick up the wounded in the deserted streets.
The army, whose intelligence services were caught off guard, cordoned off the area and patrols were seen moving into buildings from which shots had been fired.
In a statement, the army warned that soldiers would open fire without warning against any armed civilian. Tensions subsided in the afternoon, but it is obvious that such a serious incident will likely provoke a major crisis in the country.
At the core of the incident is the investigation into the tragic explosion at the port of Beirut.
Developments seem to have reached a major turning point, with an arrest warrant issued against Ali Hassan Khalil, a former Minister of Finance and current right-hand man of Nabih Berry, Speaker of Lebanon’s National Assembly, and a witness summons against former Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
The issue is aggravated by the fact that the investigating magistrate, Tarek Bitar, is acting within the framework of an exceptional judicial structure, the Court of Justice, whose jurisdiction extends to crimes against state security, and whose ruling is not subject to appeal.
Last Monday, during a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, in power for only a month, Shia and allied ministers threatened to quit if Bitar was not taken off the case.
However, the position of Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, in this regard is quite clear. The cabinet does not have the right to remove a judge because of the principle of the separation of powers. Only the High Judicial Council (HJC) can do so, if it finds a serious breach of the duties of the office on Mr Bitar’s part, whom Hezbollah accuses of having “politicised” the investigation.
Before ruling in the matter, the HJC must ensure that the accusations are justified, especially since Judge Bitar has not yet indicted anyone.
Legally and politically, Hezbollah's position has also been greatly weakened by the inappropriate visit by one of its senior officials, Wafic Safa, to the Palace of Justice where he met with the HJC’s president and the prosecutor general at the Court of Cassation. This direct (and unusual) intervention by the Shia party during an ongoing investigation raises serious questions.
According to the L'Orient-Le Jour newspaper, in a piece penned by Scarlett Haddad, “Hezbollah has clear information that Judge Bitar intends to pin most responsibility for the port explosion on it, in particular over the ammonium nitrate’s arrival in Beirut and its use to make explosives.
“According to the same sources, the judge plans to sanction Wafic Safa, head of Hezbollah's coordination unit, for what he considers to be repeated interference in the port file.”
If this is the case, the image the Shia party wants to project of itself would be dealt a serious blow since it would be implicated in an unprecedented catastrophe in the history of Lebanon.
Moreover, Judge Bitar’s investigation could come on the eve of legislative elections and is certain to have an impact not only on Hezbollah voters, but also on its relationship with its main Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, which has not shied away from showing its support for the judge.