Judicial council fails to appoint alternative judge to port blast case after popular outrage

Judicial council fails to appoint alternative judge to port blast case after popular outrage
Legal advocates said the appointment of an alternative judge would be illegal.
3 min read
28 September, 2022
The current judge, Tarek Bitar, has faced a host of obstacles to his investigation into the Beirut port blast case. [Getty]

A higher judicial council failed to appoint a second judge to oversee the investigation into the Beirut port blast on Tuesday night following outrage by civil society over the proposition.

The 4 August 2020 port blast killed at least 251 and wounded around 7,500. To date, no one has been charged in connection with the blast and political powers have successfully stalled the investigation.

The Higher Judicial Council was deliberating whether to appoint Samaranda Nassar as an "auxiliary" investigative judge in a closed-door session.

Earlier in the month, Lebanon's caretaker Minister of Justice had sent a letter to the Council asking them to find an alternative judge to the current investigator, Judge Tarek Bitar.

Lebanese legal activists have said that the appointment of the second judge was an attempt to install a political appointee who will abide by the state's "red lines."

"The appointment of a second investigator means the end of an investigation," Nizar Saghieh, the head of Lebanese legal monitor Legal Agenda, said on Tuesday.

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The Higher Judicial Council argued that because the current judge, Judge Tarek Bitar, has been obstructed in his investigation, it should appoint a second judge to supervise the investigation in the meantime.

Bitar has been blocked from continuing his work for over nine months after a minister wanted for questioning filed a lawsuit questioning his impartiality as a judge.

The Court of Cassation, which would deliberate on the suit, does not have enough members to form a quorum and the Ministry of Finance has refused to authorise the funds to hire new members. In effect, the port investigation under Bitar is delayed indefinitely.

As the Council deliberated, family members of the Beirut port blast victims held a demonstration outside, decrying what they saw as the final nail in the investigation's coffin.

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"The appointment of a second judge in the port file is illegal. It is neither effective nor necessary," Legal Agenda said. It added that the second judge could also be blocked from continuing their investigation if another defendant files a lawsuit against them similar to Bitar.

"The circumstances of the appointment indicate the possibility of appointing a non-independent judge who … will carry out the instructions of political forces who appointed him rather than act as a judicial investigator," Legal Agenda continued.

Instead, the legal monitor recommended parliament pass a law amending the current procedure which allows defendants to halt court proceedings by filing a lawsuit against the relevant judge.

Bitar is the second judge appointed to lead the Beirut port blast investigation after the first one was removed after being deemed "biased" because his home had been damaged in the blast.

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Bitar has called several officials in for questioning, including former PM Hassan Diab and Lebanon's security chief Abbas Ibrahim. Officials have refused to respond to his summons or have filed lawsuits to stall the case.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah members of the previous government refused to meet for three months until Bitar was removed from the case, calling him a "foreign agent".

He remains popular with most of the families of the victims of the Beirut port blast, who see him as a credible and transparent judge.