2021-10-16 15:12:58 Analysis: How Judge Bitar’s probe shook Lebanon leaders | News
Analysis: How Judge Bitar’s probe shook Lebanon leaders | News
Lebanon, Beirut – Few expected senior officials to be charged when the Lebanese government announced more than a year ago that the investigation into the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port would be conducted domestically.
Few expected the lead investigator, Judge Tarek Bitar, to shake the country’s entrenched leadership, which has reigned with impunity for decades and routinely quashed legal investigations that might hold it accountable.
On August 4, 2020, hundreds of tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate fertiliser stored in the port for years exploded, killing over 200 people and injuring over 6,500. The explosion destroyed large parts of Beirut and continues to haunt the country as it struggles with an economic meltdown that has pushed three-quarters of its population into poverty. So far, no officials have been convicted.
Bitar’s determination to pursue senior political and security officials, despite their efforts to delegitimize and remove him, has drawn the attention of the country.
“Judge Bitar is giving the Lebanese hope in the domestic judiciary after many people have completely given up on justice and accountability locally,” said Aya Majzoub, a researcher for Human Rights Watch Lebanon, to Al Jazeera. “He is facing off against the entire political establishment that is implicated in the Beirut bombing on his own.”
On Thursday, a protest in Beirut by Hezbollah and Amal supporters calling for Bitar’s removal devolved into a bloodbath when unidentified snipers fired from rooftops at the crowd, sparking a four-hour gun battle. Seven people, both civilians and combatants, were killed.
Families of those killed in the explosion, activists, and human rights organizations continue to support Bitar. Several political and religious leaders from across the country’s sectarian spectrum, however, have continued to call for his removal and accuse him of bias, accusations that legal experts and rights groups have dismissed.
‘Too close to home,’ they say.
Bitar took over the investigation in February after his predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, was fired for shockingly charging former ministers Ali Hasan Khalil, Ghazi Zeiter, Youssef Finianos, and Lebanon’s then-caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab with criminal negligence.
Bitar has continued to pursue the same individuals and has also charged former minister Nohad Machnouk over the last seven months. He has also requested the summons of two senior security officials, General Security Chief Major-General Abbas Ibrahim and State Security Chief Major-General Tony Saliba, but both the Ministry of Interior and the Higher Defence Council have declined.
The accused politicians have refused to appear at the interrogations. They have also repeatedly attempted to remove the judge by filing legal complaints, which have occasionally temporarily halted the investigation. Though the judiciary has so far dismissed these complaints, legal experts believe this is a stalling tactic, and major political parties have now begun calling for Bitar’s removal.
Hezbollah has been the most vocal, despite the fact that Bitar has not charged anyone from the party. Only three days before the clashes on Thursday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused the judge of politically targeting officials and demanded a “honest and transparent judge.” A senior Hezbollah security official allegedly threatened Judge Bitar in his office last month.
“It’s clear that Bitar has struck too close to home,” Majzoub said, “but we don’t know why Hezbollah, in particular, is leading this campaign against him.” “They keep saying they’re being singled out, but none of the officials Bitar has summoned for questioning are Hezbollah officials.”
Establishing a precedent
Lebanon’s troubled history is rife with conflict, including a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, followed by decades of assassinations and sporadic armed clashes. Even the most heinous crimes, however, were never prosecuted. Many see this as an extension of Lebanon’s rampant corruption, in which the judiciary is not independent of the government.
Politicians have now accused Bitar and the judiciary of being politicized.
According to families and experts, Bitar set a new precedent in the port explosion investigation and shocked Lebanon’s leadership.
According to political analyst Bachar El-Halabi, Bitar “decided to go as far as possible.”
“Sawan’s removal also shocked [the country’s ruling parties] and garnered public support that cut across sectarian lines,” El-Halabi wrote. “It’s not just about putting an end to the impunity that still reigns supreme in Lebanon, but also about fear of any kind of repercussions of change that might come through the judiciary.”
Two years ago, massive nationwide protests demanded accountability for rampant corruption and financial mismanagement, as well as an end to the country’s sectarian leadership’s decades of rule. An independent judiciary to investigate corrupt politicians and business people was a popular demand among protesters at the time.
“Bitar has also sparked a broader debate across the country about [legal] immunities and the truly corrupt political and legal system that essentially shields these high-level officials from accountability,” Majzoub said.
“He brought this issue to the forefront of public debate in Lebanon, putting a lot of pressure on the powerful to reform this system designed by the powerful to protect the powerful.”