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French judges denied access to Lebanese blast investigation - Lebanese source

January 19, 2023 at 2:57 pm

Relatives of victims of the 04 August Beirut port explosion stage a protest in front of the Justice Palace in Beirut, Lebanon, 07 February 2022. [Houssam Shbaro – Anadolu Agency]

French judges visiting Beirut this week as part of an investigation into a massive port explosion in 2020 were denied access to documents from the Lebanese probe because it remains frozen, a senior Lebanese judicial source said on Thursday, Reuters reports.

The Lebanese investigation into the explosion that killed 220 people and shattered Beirut has been frozen for a year, derailed by political resistance from ruling factions and legal challenges against the lead investigator, Judge Tarek Bitar.

The two French judges were in Beirut as part of an investigation opened by the French Prosecutor’s office because there were French nationals among the casualties, including two dead, a French diplomatic source said.

Bitar told the visiting judges he was unable to share information until he was allowed to resume his inquiry, the source said. He would be able share information not governed by secrecy rules once the probe resumed, the Lebanese source added.

Reuters could not reach the judges for comment.

WATCH: Massive blast rocks Beirut

The explosion, one of the most powerful non-nuclear blasts on record, was caused by hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate unloaded at the port in 2013.

Lebanese efforts to investigate the explosion have encountered strong political push back.

In limbo

Bitar has sought to question senior politicians, including members of Parliament, Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement, Hassan Diab – Prime Minister at the time of the blast – and top security official, Major-General Abbas Ibrahim.

All of them, including former ministers, Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, have denied wrong-doing and said Bitar does not have the power to quiz them, arguing they have immunity.

READ: Lebanon Maronite Patriarch reiterates call for an international probe into Beirut blast

The probe has been in complete limbo since early 2022, due to the retirement of judges from a court that must rule on several complaints against Bitar, submitted by officials he has sought to question, before he can continue.

The powerful Shia group, Hezbollah, several of whose allies are among those Bitar wants to question, has also opposed him.

A top Hezbollah official said in 2021 the group would remove Bitar from the probe, while Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, said was biased and should be replaced.

The court of cassation removed Bitar’s predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, in 2021, following high-level political pressure.

The Lebanese source said the French judges asked about the delay and when the probe would resume.

The French judges also met lawyers representing families of the victims, who are campaigning for accountability, said Cecile Roukoz, one of the lawyers.

READ: Beirut port fire revives trauma ahead of blast anniversary