The war within Lebanon's judiciary over the Beirut blast
The investigation into the Beirut port explosion on 4 August 2020 has entered a fierce new battle. Head of the Beirut criminal court Tarek Bitar has unexpectedly restarted the investigation after a 13-month hiatus, entering into a confrontation with top judiciary bodies.
The announcement was made following a series of protests in early January by relatives of the victims of the explosion and civil rights groups against the stagnation of the investigation and calling on judicial bodies to unblock the stalemate.
In response, security forces have arrested some relatives of the victims who are protesting, such as William Noun, further exacerbating public outrage.
The investigation into the Beirut port explosion is crucial for Lebanon's future. Considered the biggest disaster in Lebanon's history since the end of the civil war, the event is seen as an indictment of the Lebanese ruling class, where lack of accountability, corruption, negligence, pervasive sectarian dynamics, and lack of the rule of law have destabilised the country economically and politically.
"Considered the biggest disaster in Lebanon's history since the end of the civil war, the event is seen as an indictment of the Lebanese ruling class"
Since being appointed as the lead investigator for the explosion that resulted in over 220 deaths, Judge Bitar has faced numerous lawsuits from former ministers and high-ranking politicians whom he investigated, as well as a number of legal and technical challenges that have hindered the investigation and led to his suspension from the case on multiple occasions.
Judge Bitar was last suspended in late 2021 when Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil, two MPs associated with Parliament Speaker and head of the Shia party Amal Nabih Berri, filed a lawsuit against him.
Successively, both filed another lawsuit against the state alleging faults by Judge Jean-Marc Oueiss, appointed to rule on dismissal requests filed against Judge Bitar, which prevented Bitar from continuing his investigation into the 4 August 2020 blast.
The Higher Judicial Council also attempted in late 2022 to replace Judge Bitar in order to rule on requests to release some of those who are detained without trial in the blast case, but it failed to achieve a quorum.
On Monday 23 January, Judge Bitar tried to break the status quo and get back on track with the investigation, to the astonishment of many and backlash from the judiciary.
As his first move, Bitar released five of the 17 people investigated for the explosion, and charged five others, including top security officials, former prime minister Hassan Diab, and the public prosecutor of the Court of Cassation Ghassan Oweidat.
The conflict within the judiciary between Bitar and Oweidat is something that Lebanon has not seen in years. It goes beyond just a personal dispute and involves issues related to laws, powers, and court jurisdiction, all of which destabilise the already fragile judiciary system like never before.
Paul Morcos, lawyer and president of JUSTICIA Legal Foundation, explained to The New Arab that Judge Bitar tried to legitimise his return and resume the investigation based on his interpretation of several articles of the Criminal Procedure Code.
Due to the nature of the disaster, Bitar could issue all warrants required by the investigation without being requested by the Public Prosecutor's Office, namely Oweidat.
However, the Court of Cassation has adopted the principle of the permissibility of dismissing the judge from an investigation, although there is no law regulating the procedures. Bitar had already solved this issue when he was suspended several times from continuing his investigation.
This worked until the Court of Cassation decided the course of his dismissal based on the fact that if a judge received notification of recusal, he couldn't look into the case until the recusal had been decided.
There is an ongoing debate on whether Bitar's interpretation of the law in order to resume the investigation has a legal basis based on necessity.
"The conflicting claims from both judges highlight sensitive tensions within the judiciary over the investigation into the Beirut port blast"
Oweidat took critical steps to counteract Judge Bitar's decision to resume the investigation. As a counterattack, he set free all 17 individuals who had been charged in the case, filed charges against Judge Bitar, and issued him a travel ban.
In an interview with the AFP, Oweidat said that he had undertaken such legal actions against Judge Bitar, "for rebelling against the judiciary and usurping power" and to "prevent sedition".
But Bitar told the same press agency that he is still in charge as investigative judge and will not step down from the case, adding that Oweidat has no authority to charge him.
The conflicting claims from both judges highlight sensitive tensions within the judiciary over the investigation into the Beirut port blast. Its resumption has caused turmoil among the members of several judicial organisations, MPs, activists, and the public.
Oweidat's attempt to hinder Judge Bitar's return to the investigation sparked mass protests in Beirut, with demonstrators clashing with the security forces and trying to break into the justice palace on Wednesday, 26 January, which has now been dubbed "Black Wednesday".
The victims' relatives denounced Oweidat's move as a "coup" and reaffirmed their support for Judge Bitar's investigation. The clashes within the judiciary have political roots.
At first, certain members of the ruling class, particularly Hezbollah and Amal, made efforts to hinder Bitar's investigations.
In October 2021, the political campaign against Judge Bitar by the Shia parties Hezbollah and Amal culminated in armed clashes between their militias and snipers believed to belong to the Lebanese Forces (LF), the main political rival of Hezbollah, although the latter denied involvement.
This event polarised public opinion over Judge Bitar among the public and victims’ families. Now, some members of the judiciary have become more vocal in their efforts to stop the investigation altogether.
The Lebanese political system includes guarantees for various sectarian groups in employment. These dynamics have permeated much of the judicial system over the years, leading to partiality and threats to its independence. Many see Bitar’s lack of political affiliation as refreshing.
Morcos told The New Arab that politicians meddling in the justice system results in widespread corruption, eroding trust in the courts and hindering their ability to protect human rights.
"The interference of politics in the independence of the judiciary system has a significant impact on the course of justice and the ability of victims to seek justice through the legal system. The future of the judicial process in the port file is uncertain due to the presence of major question marks and concerns about whether it will lead to justice and reveal the truth," he said.
"The matter is complex and subject to enormous political pressures that the Lebanese judiciary is unable to confront, which has resulted in a great division and rift."
"The interference of politics in the independence of the judiciary system has a significant impact on the course of justice and the ability of victims to seek justice through the legal system"
Some experts argue that removing Judge Bitar from his position may be challenging, but it's also uncertain if he'll be able to complete his investigation successfully and it's unlikely that the Public Prosecution Office will follow through with the summons issued by Bitar.
The ongoing battle within the judiciary cannot be separated from the political tensions that Lebanon is facing, such as the ongoing economic crisis and the election of the new president.
Amidst these ongoing political and judicial battles, the families of the victims of the explosion continue their pursuit of the truth and accountability for their loved ones, despite attempts by the ruling class to erase the blast from the collective memory of Lebanon.
Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.
Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi