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Beirut Port blast justice postponed as renewed probe is rejected

January 25, 2023 at 4:37 pm

Smoke rises after a fire at a warehouse with explosives at the Port of Beirut led to massive blasts in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, 2020 [Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency]

Lebanon’s top Public Prosecutor, on Wednesday, charged the Beirut Port blast investigating judge and ordered the release of those detained in connection with the explosion, after rejecting the judge’s surprise resumption of the probe, Reuters reports.

The moves by Ghassan Oweidat signal escalating opposition by Lebanon’s ruling establishment to efforts by Judge Tarek Bitar to reopen the probe into the 4 August, 2020, blast that killed more than 220 people.

In a text message exchange with Reuters, Oweidat said he had summoned Bitar for questioning but did not specify whether he had charged him. Bitar said he had been charged, but did not give details.

A judicial source had earlier said Oweidat had filed charges against Bitar over alleged wrong-doing in his handling of the probe.

Bitar, on Monday, unexpectedly resumed his investigation into the explosion after high-level political interference and legal complaints had paralysed the probe for more than a year.

He also charged top current and former officials, including Oweidat, without specifying the charges against the top Prosecutor.

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Bitar said on Wednesday he would continue his probe, despite mounting resistance. He told Reuters he would “continue until I issue an indictment”, and said that Oweidat “had no right” to file the charge or release detainees.

For Lebanese desperate to see accountability over the explosion, Bitar symbolises hope that justice may, one day, be served in a country where impunity has long been the norm.

Oweidat, on Tuesday, sent a letter to Bitar saying his probe remained suspended and on Wednesday issued a decision, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, saying the judge did not have the authority to resume his investigation.

In the same decision, Oweidat released all those detained in connection with the probe “without exception”, but said they would face a travel ban.

At least 17 people, mostly low- to mid-level officials, had been detained since 2020 in relation to the case, said Amnesty International, in conditions it said could violate their due process rights.

Badri Daher, who headed the customs authority at the time of the blast and was the most senior official detained following the explosion, was freed on Wednesday, Daher’s sister told Reuters.

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

To many Lebanese, the disaster symbolised the wider corruption and mismanagement of a ruling elite that had also steered Lebanon into a devastating financial collapse.

READ: Lebanon plans to question judges, security officials about Beirut Port explosion