OPN 200823 REG Kuwait Lebanon
The explosion of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser on August 4 killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and ravaged swathes of the Lebanese capital. Image Credit: AP

Beirut: Lebanon Friday named a new judge to lead a probe into Beirut’s devastating port blast last August, a judicial source said, a day after his predecessor was removed from the case.

“The high judicial council... agreed to caretaker justice minister Mary-Claude Najm’s suggestion of appointing Judge Tareq Bitar as lead investigator in the Beirut port blast case,” the source said.

“The council summoned Judge Bitar and informed him of the decision to appoint him, and he accepted.”

Bitar will become the second judge to look into the explosion of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser on August 4 that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and ravaged swathes of the capital.

Bitar steps into the position after a court on Thursday removed Judge Fadi Sawan from the case, following a complaint from two former ministers charged with negligence over the explosion.

Rights activists condemned the move as the latest example of an entrenched political class placing itself above the law.

Sawan in December issued charges against caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers for “negligence and causing death to hundreds”, sparking two of the latter to file the complaint.

The court on Thursday found in favour of the plaintiffs who had questioned the judge’s impartiality in view of his home having been damaged in the explosion.

Lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh tentatively welcomed Bitar’s appointment, and said he had a good reputation as being competent.

But after Sawan’s removal, he wondered whether the new judge would be able to conduct his work “without interference or pressure”.

“Will he be able to cross the red lines?” he asked.

The probe into Lebanon’s worst peace-time disaster has led to the detention of 25 people, from maintenance workers to the port’s customs director, but not a single politician.

Diab resigned after the blast, but the divided political class has failed to name a new government to replace his and help lift the country out of economic crisis.