Lebanese caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati has warned that a rift in the country’s judiciary could have “dangerous consequences” at a time when politicians have been unable to elect a president or form a fully empowered government to tackle economic collapse and soaring poverty.
Lebanon’s higher judicial council failed to meet yesterday to address the disagreement after police used tear gas and batons to disperse demonstrators at the justice ministry.
The protests took place in support of judge Tarek Bitar, who has been charged after challenging the judiciary by resuming his politically stalled investigation into the Beirut port explosion in August 2020 which killed 218 people, wounded 6,000, and left 300,000 homeless.
Public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat has accused judge Bitar of exceeding his authority, sedition and “rebelling against the judiciary”. After telling the judiciary not to accept judge Bitar’s orders, warrants and documents, Mr Oueidat released 17 port officials and employees detained shortly after the explosion. Once freed, former chief of port security Ziad al-Awf travelled to the US.
A travel ban was imposed on judge Bitar.
Independent Tripoli deputy and former justice minister Ashraf Rifi, who attended the demonstration along with families of victims of the explosion, told L’Orient Today’s website that judge Bitar’s detractors were “trying to establish a criminal state” and said: “We must protect the course of the investigation.”
After legal wrangling and political pressure, judge Bitar ended a 13-month suspension of his investigation on Monday by charging former prime minister Hassan Diab and two ministers with homicide for failing to heed warnings about 1,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which was stored unsafely in the port for six years.
He also accused judges – including Mr Oueidat – and security chiefs of obstructing the investigation. Judge Bitar said he was resuming his investigation because he is a government appointee and the parliament does not have the power to remove him.
According to Al-Jazeera, Amnesty International’s regional director Aya Majzoub, said: “It’s clear they’ve already taken a decision not to move the investigation forward, without really engaging with the legal analysis Bitar presented.” She said if judge Bitar issues indictments, “that will be a very positive thing for, at least, the right to [know] the truth”.
Founder of the Legal Agenda advocacy organisation Nizar Saghieh, told Al-Jazeera “There are lots of powerful people who will not let him [ judge Bitar] to do his job”.
He said Mr Oueidat’s effort is “totally unacceptable,” particularly since he initially pledged not to intervene due to a conflict of interest.
According to Lebanese media, before the explosion Mr Oueidat supervised an internal security examination of the warehouse where the ammonium nitrate was stored with fireworks and paint.
Work by Syrian labourers to repair cracks and weld shut iron doors was initially blamed for detonating the volatile material.