The Lebanese judge investigating the August 2020 Beirut Port blast, who suspended his investigation 13 months ago following drawn-out political pressure, decided to resume his work, an official said Monday.
“Judge Tarek Bitar has decided to resume his investigation,” the official told AFP, noting that Bitar had ordered the release of five detained suspects while charging eight others.
“Bitar conducted a legal study that led him to decide to resume his investigations despite the complaints filed against him,” the official said.
The explosion at the Port of Beirut happened in the early morning of Aug. 4, 2020, killing at least 220 people and wounding thousands more. The explosion was the deadliest in Lebanon’s modern history and caused immense damage, even as far as 12 kilometers away from the explosion.
The judicial investigation led by Bitar sought to charge several Lebanese government officials, as well as security officials, politicians and judges, with criminal neglect over the mismanaged storage of about 2,700 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate. The ignition of the huge amounts of ammonium nitrate led to the explosion.
Among Bitar’s legal targets are director of the General Security Directorate Maj.-Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, director general of state security Maj.-Gen. Tony Saliba and former Lebanese customs chief Shafiq Merhi.
Judge Bitar’s work, in holding those responsible for the blast accountable, has been repeatedly blocked and undermined by members of the Lebanese government and Hezbollah, the terrorist organization and Iranian proxy, which is the most powerful political and military player in Lebanon.
Hezbollah has demanded repeatedly that Bitar step down from his role because of “political bias.” On one occasion, in September 2021, high-ranking Hezbollah official Wafiq Safa threatened the judge by saying, “We’ve had it up to our noses with you. We will stay with you until the end of this legal path, but if it doesn’t work out, we will usurp you.”
While it was not clear what was meant by “usurp,” there were concerns that the judge might be physically harmed.
The political pressure on Bitar to step down from the investigation has not relented. Lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh said there was “no doubt” such pressure would persist “to halt his work.”
“Bitar is waging a battle against the policy of impunity [in Lebanon],” Saghieh told AFP.
So far, nobody has been held accountable for the Port blast. Relatives of those killed in it continue to hold monthly vigils and to protest in front of the justice palace, demanding accountability and justice. On Jan. 16, however, the relatives themselves were summoned for questioning by authorities.
“It’s absurd and disgusting that we’re the ones being brought in for questioning,” said William Noun, who was detained after a protest seeking justice for his brother who was killed in the blast.
“There’s a deliberate attempt to drain the families,” said Noun, who is a prominent figure in the campaign. He said he and others were accused of rioting at the justice palace.
“It was time for Judge Bitar to resume his work,” said Tatiana Hasrouty, whose father died in the blast. “We are ruled by a mafia, and all those charged by Bitar are part of that mafia.”
There have been attempts at gathering support for an international investigation into the blast, especially as many foreign citizens, including French ones, were killed during the tragic explosion.
Relative and rights groups sent a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2021, saying that “flagrant political interference, immunity for high-level political officials, and lack of respect for fair trial” had left the Lebanese judicial investigation of the blast stunted and incapable of bringing accountability.