Beirut blast probe to resume as court rejects challenges

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s appeals court on Monday rejected lawsuits filed against the lead investigator of the Beirut port explosion in a decision that allows him to resume his work, the country’s National News agency said.

The lawsuits were part of a growing campaign by Lebanon’s political class against the investigation into the devastating port explosion of Aug. 4, 2020. The blast heavily destroyed parts of Beirut, killed over 200 people and wounded over 6,000.

Monday’s ruling came a week after three former Cabinet ministers, who are also defendants in the investigation, accused the judge of bias and filed lawsuits demanding he be dismissed.

The challenge automatically suspended the probe until the decision was reached. The appeals court rejected the request to remove Judge Tarek Bitar, saying doing so is not its jurisdiction. It fined each of the three former ministers 800,000 Lebanese pounds ($47 at the black market rate, and about $530 at the official rate.)

Families of the Beirut blast victims welcomed the resumption of the probe. Dozens gathered Monday outside the port in their monthly vigil to remember the victims and commemorate the explosion. They urged the judge to continue his investigation and appealed to the political class to let him do his job.

“We will continue to demand (justice) until our last breath,” said Anwar Chia, a relative of one of the victims.

The ruling political class, accused by rights groups and the public of knowing about the explosive material stored at the port and doing little to protect against it, has closed ranks against Bitar and his predecessor. Both have wanted to interrogate senior political and security officials accused of negligence that led to the blast.

Bitar took over the job in February after judge Fadi Sawwan was also removed from his post following similar legal challenges by senior officials.

Various political leaders have accused Bitar of politicizing the investigation, violating the constitution by ignoring immunity granted to lawmakers and government officials, and by going after some officials and not others.

The suspension of the probe, and the repeated attempts to obstruct it, had angered families of the victims killed in the explosion who called Bitar’s probe the last hope they have in Lebanon’s judiciary. They say the investigation has been marred by repeated political interference and failure to bring officials to justice.

Bitar is still facing at least one other legal challenge from a fourth defendant, also a former minister, who has raised “legitimate suspicion” against the lead investigator. The country’s top court must decide in the case. Only the top court, called the Court of Cassation, could then put the probe on hold.

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