BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s attorney general on Wednesday ordered the release of all suspects held in connection with the investigation into the deadly 2020 Beirut port explosion and filed charges against the judge in charge of the investigation, he told The Associated Press.
The decision by the chief prosecutor, Judge Ghassan Oweidat, dealt a further blow to the investigation, which has been stalled for years. The investigation threatened to rattle Lebanon’s ruling elite, plagued by corruption and mismanagement, and helped plunge the country into an unprecedented economic collapse.
Oweidat accused Judge Tarek Bitar of resuming his work despite legal challenges against him which halted the investigation, abused his authority, carried out work contrary to his prerogatives and exceeded his authority. He also issued a travel ban.
The decision came after Bitar resumed the investigation into the devastating port blast on Monday, after a 13-month hiatus following legal challenges raised by politicians charged in the investigation, including the chief prosecutor.
Bitar said in a statement Wednesday that Oweidat’s decision to release the detainees was illegal and that he could not charge a judge who has already charged him in an investigation.
Oweidat announced in December 2020 his withdrawal from any involvement in the Beirut explosion investigation due to his ties to indicted former minister and parliamentarian Ghazi Zeiter.
Bitar told the AP he would continue the investigation, “even if it will cost me my life” and hopes there will be an indictment before the third anniversary of the blast next August.
“I have nothing against Judge Oweidat but there are suspicions that have arisen. He should come and defend himself,” Bitar said. “I will continue with the case and I will not leave it unless they withdraw me completely.”
“All those I summon must come because the blood of the victims is above all,” the judge added.
Hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, exploded in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, killing 218 people, injuring more than 6,000 and damaging large parts of the Lebanese capital .
Seventeen detainees have been held for years in pre-trial detention pending the results of the investigation. Although they have been ordered to be released, they must remain in the country.
Lawyer Sakher El Hachem, who represents former port authority chief Hassan Koraytem and a former port official, US citizen Ziad al-Ouf, told the AP they had received confirmation from the court decision and that his clients would be released on Wednesday.
Officials added that Oweidat sent a police officer to Bitar’s residence to inform him of the charges and order Bitar to visit his office, but the maverick investigator refused to speak to him.
Mody Koraytem, the sister of the former port authority chief, said the release of the detainees was long overdue and she claimed they were all innocent.
“As a port authority, they couldn’t have done anything about it (the ammonium nitrate),” she said, adding that they had done their job since the court had cleared the deadly cargo to enter the port.
Some of the detainees had already left the prison late Wednesday afternoon, including former customs chief Badri Daher. “Oweidat did the right thing legally,” said his lawyer, Céline Atallah. Daher was unavailable for comment.
Judge Bitar is the second investigator to lead the port explosion investigation and has indicted more than a dozen senior political, security, port and security officials.
On Monday, Bitar ordered the release of five of the 17 detained in the case and charged eight officials, including senior intelligence officials Major General Abbas Ibrahim and Major General Tony Saliba, as well as Oweidat.
The judge also summoned at least 14 politicians and justice, security and customs officials for questioning next month. Senior officials have repeatedly refused to come forward for questioning since the start of the investigation.
Bitar took office following the February 2021 dismissal of Justice Fadi Sawwan following complaints of bias by two Cabinet ministers. If he’s also fired, it could be the final blow to the investigation.
Most of the families of the explosion victims approved of Bitar and called on the authorities to allow a thorough and unimpeded investigation. Some, however, lost hope in a national inquiry and pleaded for a UN-mandated fact-finding mission.
They condemned Oweidat’s decision on Wednesday and called for demonstrations.
“It dashes any hope we have left,” said Paul Naggear, an activist for the families of the blast victims and father of a 3-year-old child who died in the blast. “They want to put an end to the investigation. That’s the only explanation. »
Naggear said he sympathizes with the families of the inmates. But he believes they were manipulated by Lebanese political leaders to blame Bitar for not releasing them sooner rather than blaming the authorities for putting the investigation on ice.
Amnesty International said the Lebanese authorities are not interested in justice.
“Lebanese authorities flouted the law, shamelessly circumventing an ongoing criminal investigation and retaliating against a judge who was only doing his job,” said Amnesty’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and Africa. from the North, Aya Majzoub.
Lebanese political leaders have accused Bitar without evidence of bias in his investigation, with some demanding his dismissal.
Lebanese media reported earlier on Wednesday that the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, the country’s highest judicial body, will meet on Thursday to discuss Bitar’s status in the investigation and a proposal to introduce an auxiliary judge to the court. ‘investigation.
Associated Press writer Abby Sewell Beirut contributed to this report.