Violence, intimidation, and hope: Judge Bitar and Beirut’s port explosion

By Roisin McCarthy

THIS month marked a turning point for Lebanon and the Beirut port explosion investigation.

Streets across the capital became a sectarian battleground on October 15 after unknown gunmen opened fire on demonstrators.

They had gathered in support of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement’s calls to remove Judge Tarek Bitar, the man responsible for leading enquiries into the blast.

Several hours of fighting between rival factions resulted in dozens of injuries and seven fatalities – the worst violence Lebanon has seen for more than a decade.

In the following days, Lebanon’s political and military leaders appealed for calm. But tensions remain fraught as Shiite Hezbollah and the rival Christian Lebanese Forces continue to exchange alarming rhetoric harking back to the civil war.

It offers up the question of how such rapid descent into violence could be provoked by opposition against a judge.

Young, understated, and relatively unknown, Tarek Bitar was named the Beirut port explosion’s lead investigator at the beginning of the year.

His appointment came after the Court of Cassation removed Judge Fadi Sawan from the position in response to a complaint from two ministers he had accused of criminal negligence.

The ruling signaled a major setback to the investigation and prompted widespread condemnation from Lebanese citizens desperate to see their political leaders finally called to account.

Bitar has faced similar obstructions in his efforts to progress the investigation, including multiple suspensions.

However, he remains in position, a reality that has increasingly unnerved political leaders implicated in the port blast.

Mona Alami, a senior analyst based in Lebanon, told Redaction Report: “This is the first time since the war that ministers, MPs, and others are being prosecuted. I think that the various parties involved in the investigation will do everything to put an end to it.

“There are talks of voting a law that would create a court to oversee Bitar’s investigation. They are going to push him to resign by all means.”

Chronic impunity and the expansive influence by political actors over Lebanon’s judiciary have been extensively documented.

In June 2021, human rights groups, survivors, and relatives of victims of the port blast called on the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent investigation. 

International intervention has not yet taken place, and in the meantime, support for Bitar has deepened as the Lebanese people’s drive for justice grows stronger.

In response, efforts from the political elite to block the judge’s investigations have gathered pace, culminating in last week’s violence.

Executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, Nadim Houry, told Redaction Report: “So far we have seen a large chunk of the political class led by Hezbollah and Amal try to derail the investigation. They have tried to sideline Bitar, vilify him through media campaigns and create divisions between the families of the victims.

“None of this has succeeded very well, and what we have seen over recent days is their final trump card –– you resort to the ultimate tactic in Lebanese politics and you threaten the population with chaos and violence.”

In a sign that Bitar remains undeterred by the actions of those he seeks to bring to account, on Tuesday, October 19 he summoned two former ministers and sitting MPs, Ghazi Zeitar and Nohad Machnouk, one of whom is a Hezbollah ally, for questioning.

The former ministers, who have previously avoided interrogation after claiming parliamentary immunity, are two of many top officials suspected of criminal negligence in a blast that killed more than 200 people in August 2020.  

Despite this, hope that justice for the Beirut port victims will be achieved is wavering.

Haya Breish, a recent graduate of Saint Joseph University of Beirut told Redaction Report: “I, like most Lebanese, don’t believe in the justice system and don’t think that Bitar can get us to the truth because of a lot of restrictions and corruption schemes.

“Families will not get justice for their children because politicians won’t allow it. They are all culprits but they protect each other, if one goes down the others will follow.”

Anger that investigations could fall apart under pressure and obstruction is underpinned by an even greater fear of what this will mean for Lebanon’s judiciary going forward.

Houry reflected: “The issue here is not about personalising the battle around Judge Bitar. It’s about a simple question, can someone hold people in the political class accountable for a crime they committed.

It’s a real struggle for the soul of the country, can this be a stepping-stone for rebuilding the rule of law in Lebanon?”

Featured Image: Bdx @WikimediaCommons

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