Political pressure and an intense smear campaign have targeted Tarek Bitar, the Lebanese judge in charge of the investigation into the Beirut port explosion in August 2020, for several weeks, stepping up the pace with threats from a senior Hezbollah official.
In the eyes of the relatives of some victims, this suggests that Bitar’s investigation is pointing in the right direction.Bitar has been involved in a confrontation with the Lebanese political class since the beginning of July, as powerful figures have refused to waive the immunity of several former ministers and security officials that the judge wants to investigate.
While this impasse has paralyzed the probe in the cataclysmic double explosion that killed 214 people, injured some 6,500 and left much of Beirut in ruins, the pressure on Bitar has accelerated.
Lebanese media reports that Wafic Safa, the head of Hezbollah, sent a threat to Bitar through a journalist who remains anonymous: “We have had enough of you; We will go to the end of the legal path, and if that does not work, we will expel him by force. ”
Bitar confirmed receiving this threat in a letter addressed to the Lebanese prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidate, on September 23.
“Judge Bitar’s investigation appears to have caused panic in some people,” said Antonella Hitti, sister of a victim of the Beirut port explosion. “The threats against him make it clear that he is doing a good job and that his investigation is pointing in the right direction, that is, people who are so scared that they are ready to do anything to get him out of his job.”
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Antonella’s brother, Najib Hitti, her cousin Charbel Hitti, and her brother-in-law Charbel Karam died on August 4, 2020 in the port of Beirut, where their fire crews had been dispatched a few minutes before the explosions. The families of the victims are keen to bring those responsible for the blast to justice, and see Bitar as a dedicated professional who sees it as his mission to bring the truth to light.
“The case of the Beirut port explosion is sacred to me,” Bitar told the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le-Jour in a rare interview in February. “It is a mission that I have to fulfill; We owe it to the victims for discovering the truth. ”
“Nothing will stop me,” he continued. “I don’t know where the investigation will take me, but I’m not going off course.”
Immune to threats
For the families of many victims, the view that Bitar has no political affiliation in a country plagued by patronage makes him the best person for the job.
Lebanon’s political class, entrenched in power by the confessional system, has refused to allow an international investigation into the explosion. Rumors abound that Hezbollah was involved in the port storage of the tons of ammonium nitrate that caused the calamity.
“We have met with the judge several times, he is very dedicated and has promised everything he can within the framework of the law to find out what happened,” Hitti said. “He has all our confidence in him and in the ideal of justice that he embodies, especially since, in a country as corrupt as Lebanon, some judges are in the pockets of political parties and do not share Bitar’s principles of probity and impartiality. “.
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Hailing from the Akkar region of northern Lebanon, Bitar is highly regarded by his colleagues, especially because he seems immune to threats and political pressure. This is a much-needed quality, as became very clear in August when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech: “This is a politicized investigation. [Bitar] he must do his job clearly, or the justice system will have to find someone else to do it. ”
“The Hezbollah chief does not usually give speeches, but since Bitar was appointed he has made several speeches targeting the judge and his investigation. Is that a sign that the investigation is creating embarrassment for Nasrallah?” Hitti asked.
Bitar is not the first judge in charge of the Beirut explosion investigation to come under political pressure. Before getting the job in February 2020, Bitar’s predecessor, Fadi Sawan, stepped down because Lebanon’s highest court upheld an impeachment request from two former ministers whom he had accused of negligence.
However, Bitar seems unflappable: he accelerated this week by initiating a process against three Lebanese MPs, who have been summoned to appear in court on September 30 and October 1. Bitar has also set a new date for the former prime minister’s hearing. Hassane Diab, who did not appear in court as scheduled on Sept. 20 because she was visiting the United States.
People’s power vs political power
A few days before the threat reports emerged, Bitar issued an arrest warrant for former Minister of Public Works and Transportation Youssef Fenianos on September 16, who repeatedly refused to be questioned. Fenianos is a member of the Marada Movement, a political party allied to Hezbollah and close to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, which is suspected of “murder, negligence and misconduct.”
Consequently, Fenianos’ lawyers went to Lebanon’s highest court on Wednesday to demand Bitar’s removal from the case and his replacement by another judge. Fenianos denounced what he saw as Bitar’s “deviant behavior” and argued that, as a former minister, he should be investigated by the High Court, not by Bitar.
“As families of the victims, we do not accuse anyone, it is not our right,” Hitti said. “But it is as if some people are accusing themselves of being responsible for the explosion, because if you have nothing to hide, you do not reject a subpoena from a judge.”
No one knows who leaked the story about Hezbollah threatening Bitar this week. Does this person want to protect Bitar by revealing to the public the pressure he is under? Or do you want to make it clear that some people will do whatever it takes to get it out of the Beirut blast probe?
Meanwhile, the families of the victims continue to rant in the Lebanese media and at the protests, keeping up the pressure on the Lebanese political class. Amid this pressure, new Lebanese Justice Minister Henri Khoury said on September 23 that he will do whatever it takes to keep Bitar safe.
For his part, Hitti says that the families of the victims will do everything possible to guarantee the safety of the judge: “If this failed state, run by the same people who threaten Bitar and covered up the suspects, cannot protect him, we are ready. to watch over your house and protect it during its movements ”.