Beirut Blast Judge Survives Attempt to Remove Him from Investigation

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Beirut Blast Judge Survives Attempt to Remove Him from Investigation

A Lebanese court on Monday dismissed requests to remove the judge leading the probe into the Beirut port blast, paving the way for Tarek Bitar to resume investigations after a one-week suspension.

The court of appeal said it had no authority to rule on requests filed by former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil, Ghazi Zeaiter and Nouhad Mashnouk to replace Bitar.

All three politicians said the judge had overstepped his legal authority by seeking to prosecute senior officials who enjoy parliamentary immunity. The court ordered the three officials to cover legal fees of 800,000 Lebanese pounds ($45 on the black market rate).

Bitar’s summons had also been snubbed by former prime minister Hassan Diab and ex-public works minister Youssef Finianos.

The judge had issued an arrest warrant for Finianos in September, after he failed to appear for questioning. Finianos later asked the Supreme Court to remove Bitar over questions of his impartiality. The court has yet to rule on the request.

The Supreme Court had removed Bitar’s predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, after Zeaiter and Hassan Khalil, both members of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's political bloc, filed appeals on the same grounds.

Parliament had denied Bitar’s request to question senior officials, saying they should instead be prosecuted before a special body that includes MPs and senior judges, as stipulated by the constitution.

The victims' families have since accused politicians of stalling and attempting to block the investigation into the explosion that killed at least 214 people and destroyed large parts of the capital.

More than a year later, it remains unclear what triggered the explosion of hundreds of tons of chemical fertiliser that was stored for over six years at the port. Questions also remain over who owned the ammonium nitrate and why it was stockpiled for so long at such a vital facility.

Reports have linked the shipment of explosive chemicals to businessmen with ties to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, an ally of Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.

Hezbollah has repeatedly criticised Bitar and threatened to remove him from the probe, accusing him of politicising the case.

Victims' families will hold their monthly sit-in at the port on Monday to demand justice.

The explosion, which toppled Diab’s government and the left the country without a functioning Cabinet for a year, compounded Lebanon’s financial meltdown, causing billions of dollars in property damage across Beirut.

The international community has urged Lebanese officials to allow for a transparent investigation, with the US and France recently voicing concerns over last week’s suspension of the probe.

Source: The National