Victims of Beirut blast protest 'silencing' of investigative judge

Victims of Beirut blast protest 'silencing' of investigative judge
Victims of the Beirut port blast are looking to an international investigation now that the state has moved to muzzle the domestic probe.
4 min read
26 January, 2023
A protester holds up a picture of Jawad Ajwad Chaya, killed in the 2020 Beirut port blast, while protesting the targeting of Judge Tarek al-Bitar by Lebanon's public prosecutor. [William Christou/TNA]

Over 100 demonstrators joined the families of the victims of the Beirut port blast in front of the Palace of Justice on Thursday in protest of the prosecutor's decision to sideline the judge assigned to the port blast case.

No one has yet been prosecuted for the 4 August 2020 blast which killed at least 250 and injured over 6,000.

Demonstrators held up signs of family members killed in the blast while chanting slogans against the Lebanese government, calling the public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat a "terrorist."

"I would tell Oueidat if your son died in this explosion, would you have acted the same? How can he continue living with his conscience, if he has one," Mireille Khoury, whose son Elias was killed at the age of 15 by the port blast, told The New Arab.

The protest came after Oueidat charged Judge Tarek Bitar who is leading the Beirut port blast investigation with "usurpation of authority." The prosecutor also slapped Bitar with a travel ban and released all detainees held in connection with the Beirut port blast since 2020.

In effect, the prosecutor's actions would likely suspend Bitar's involvement with the port blast probe.

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Bitar did not respond to the summons issued by Oueidat and said that he considered his actions a "coup against the law."

He told local media that he would complete his investigation and issue indictments, whether "from his home, his office or from prison."

Bitar added that Oueidat cannot issue decisions related to the case given that he previously recused himself and has been charged by Bitar in the case.

Pictures of Badri Daher, the former head of customs who has been detained since 2020, being freed, and the former head of port security on a plane to the US, also caused outrage in Lebanon.

Thursday's protest escalated into minor scuffles between protesters and security forces after protesters tried to storm the Palace of Justice.

A security officer was beaten severely by protesters after he charged the crowd, while a female protester was beaten with batons by security forces.

Inside the Palace of Justice, the independent MP Waddah Sadek said that he was assaulted by a member of the Palace's security while he and other MPs tried to discuss the port blast case with the Minister of Justice.

It remains to be seen what will happen now that Bitar refused to attend Thursday's hearing against him, while the Minister of Justice and public prosecutor refuse to abide by Bitar's instructions.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International said that Oueidat's move was "unprecedented" and that it "bypasses the ongoing criminal investigation into the explosion."

The statement further called for an international fact-finding mission into the Beirut port explosion. Such an investigation would not bring criminal charges but could be used by other countries for their own legal proceedings related to the port blast.

There are currently ongoing court cases related to the port blast in France and the United States.

"Our only hope is the lawsuits taking place outside the country for non-Lebanese. As Lebanese, we have no value. But at least victims with other nationalities I hope that their countries will pursue justice," Khoury said.

As the protest over the port blast case raged, demonstrations over the declining value of the national currency and the increasing price of fuel proliferated throughout the country.

Key roads across Beirut and other cities were cut off by protesters slinging burning tires and other obstacles.

The Lebanese lira was in free fall on Thursday, declining to an unprecedented 61,300 per US dollar.

The majority of Lebanese make their salaries in Lebanese lira and have seen their purchasing power evaporate over the last three years.

Since then, the national currency has lost over 97 per cent of its value relative to the dollar.