Beirut, Lebanon (AFP):
Families of the victims of the 2020 Beirut port explosion rallied Thursday to support the judge who has resumed work on the politically-charged case in a daring challenge to Lebanon’s entrenched ruling elite.
Experts have warned that the battle between investigative judge Tarek Bitar and top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, who has charged him with insubordination, will be a critical test for the faltering justice system of the crisis-hit Mediterranean nation.
Bitar this week defied Lebanon’s ruling class to charge several powerful figures — including Oueidat, the prosecutor general — in connection to the blast, and revived a probe that had remained suspended for over a year amid vehement political and legal pushback.
Oueidat in turn charged Bitar for insubordination and for “usurping power”, ordered the release of all those detained in the case, and slapped a travel ban on them and the judge.
Bitar was called for questioning on Thursday, a summons he did not attend.
“We had faith in justice, but the mask has now fallen,” said protester Abdo Matta, 54, who lost his son in the explosion.
“We will never stop, we want to know who killed our children.”
The explosion on August 4, 2020, destroyed much of Beirut’s port and surrounding areas, killing more than 215 people and injuring over 6,500.
Authorities said hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser haphazardly stocked in a port warehouse since 2014 had caught fire, causing the explosion.
A defiant Bitar told AFP Wednesday he will not step down from this case. He added that the chief prosecutor “has no authority” to intervene.
The judicial arm-wrestling between Bitar and Oueidat risks deepening Lebanon’s mounting woes, and some warn it may be the last nail in the coffin of a notoriously politicised justice system.