BEIRUT: The judge leading the investigation into Beirut’s deadly 2020 port blast refused on Wednesday to step down from the probe, rejecting charges brought against him by Lebanon’s top prosecutor in the politically charged case.
Investigative judge Tarek Bitar crossed all red lines earlier this week by daring to charge several powerful figures over the blast and reviving a probe that was suspended for over a year amid vehement political and legal pushback.
One of history’s biggest non-nuclear explosions, the August 4, 2020 blast destroyed much of Beirut port and surrounding areas, killing more than 215 people and injuring over 6,500.
Prosecutor General Ghassan Oueidat told AFP on Wednesday that in order to “prevent sedition” he had “charged investigative judge Tarek Bitar and banned him from travel for rebelling against the judiciary and usurping power”.
But a defiant Bitar told AFP: “I am still the investigative judge and I will not step down from this case,” adding that Oueidat “has no authority to charge me”.
The judicial arm-wrestling is the latest of crisis-torn Lebanon’s mounting woes, as the value of the national currency hit a new record low against the US dollar on Wednesday.
Bitar resumed work on the investigation this week after a 13-month hiatus, charging eight high-level officials over the blast, including Oueidat, the head of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim, and State Security agency chief Tony Saliba.
A judicial official said Oueidat, who has rejected the charges, had summoned Bitar for Thursday morning but that the investigating judge would “not appear for questioning”.
Oueidat on Wednesday ordered the “release of all those detained over the Beirut port explosion case, without exception” and banned them from travel, according to a judicial document seen by AFP.
Those ordered released include a dual American-Lebanese citizen, as well as the port chief and the head of customs Badri Daher, whom local media said was released shortly after.
Authorities said the mega-explosion was caused by a fire in a portside warehouse where a vast stockpile of the industrial chemical ammonium nitrate had been haphazardly stored for years.
Relatives of the dead have been holding monthly vigils, seeking justice and accountability over the disaster, which they blame on an entrenched ruling class widely seen as inept and corrupt.
A judicial official had previously told AFP that Oueidat had in 2019 overseen a security services investigation into cracks in the warehouse where the ammonium nitrate was stored.
Investigative judge Bitar had been forced to suspend his work after a barrage of lawsuits, mainly from politicians he had summoned on charges of negligence and the Iran-backed movement Hezbollah, which has called for him to step down.
After resuming work this week, Bitar had planned to question 14 suspects next month, including five officials whom he had indicted earlier - among them ex-prime minister Hassan Diab and former ministers.
Lebanese state institutions have been reluctant to cooperate with the probe, which began the same month as the explosion.
In February 2021, Bitar’s predecessor as lead judge was removed from the case after he had charged several high-level politicians.
The interior ministry has also failed to execute arrest warrants issued by Bitar, further undermining his quest for accountability.