Beirut, Lebanon (AFP):
The judge leading the investigation into Beirut’s deadly 2020 port blast refused 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 defied Lebanon’s entrenched ruling elite this week by daring to charge several powerful figures — including prosecutor general Ghassan Oueidat — over the blast and reviving a probe that was suspended for over a year amid vehement political and legal pushback.
The explosion on August 4, 2020, destroyed much of Beirut port and surrounding areas, killing more than 215 people and injuring over 6,500.
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.”
Oueidat “cannot charge a judge who has already charged him”, Bitar said, adding that the chief prosecutor “has no authority to charge me”.
A judicial official said Oueidat had summoned Bitar for questioning on Thursday but that the investigator was refusing to attend.
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.
Authorities said the explosion was caused by a fire in a warehouse where a vast stockpile of ammonium nitrate had been haphazardly stored for years.
Bitar resumed work on the investigation after a 13-month hiatus, charging eight officials over the blast — including Oueidat, the head of General Security Abbas Ibrahim, and State Security agency chief Tony Saliba — with probable intent to murder, arson and other crimes.
Oueidat, who has rejected the charges, 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.
Some of the detainees were released later in the day, AFP correspondents reported.
Lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh said Oueidat had “no authority” to release the detainees.