Controversy over Beirut blasts probe escalates

The investigation into the August 2020 blasts, which killed over 200 people and injured thousands, has become a point of contention after controversial judge Tarek Bitar said he was resuming proceedings. Lebanon’s Chief Prosecutor Ghassan Oweidat has filed charges against Bitar

January 26, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Beirut blast investigation
(Photo: MEE/Hasan Shaaban)

The controversy over the probe into the Beirut blasts of 2020 has intensified following judge Tarek Bitar’s decision to resume the proceedings. On Wednesday, January 25, Lebanon’s Chief Prosecutor Ghassan Oweidat filed charges against Bitar and ordered the release of those imprisoned in connection with the probe, Al Jazeera reported. The previous day, Bitar had charged former Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab and two of his cabinet colleagues with homicide with probable intent.  Oweidat was also among those charged by Bitar. Media outlets also reported protests on Thursday in front of the offices of the judiciary.

According to various sources, judge Bitar has said that formal interrogations will begin in mid-February, despite Oweidat conveying to him that “his probe into the Beirut port blast remained suspended.” Oweidat claimed that he only heard about the resumption of Bitar’s investigation through media reports, Lebanon’s National News Agency reported.

Apart from Diab, who was the prime minister at the time of the blast, and his two colleagues—former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and former Public Work Minister Ghazi Zeaiter—dozens of other high ranking state officials have been reportedly charged. These include the former head of state intelligence Major General Abbas Ibrahim. 

Bitar’s announcements have reignited the political debate over responsibility for the Beirut blasts on August 4, 2020, which killed over 200 people and injured thousands others. According to reports, the homes of over 30,000 residents of Beirut were also, at least temporarily, damaged by the blast. The blast was allegedly caused by accidental fire at the Beirut port where more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored for years.  

Following massive protests, the government, then led by Diab, had constituted an inquiry committee under judge Fadi Sawan, who soon had to resign after allegations of bias. Judge Tarek Bitar was appointed in his place in December 2020. However, he was also accused of bias and of overstepping his jurisdiction by Hezbollah and other political parties. 

Hezbollah has also accused Bitar of politicizing the investigation and following the US’s agenda in his investigation. 

Following various lawsuits filed against Bitar, the investigation was suspended. As the cases against Bitar’s investigation are yet to be disposed of by the Lebanese courts, the legitimacy of his charges against Diab and the others remains disputed.     

Protests demanding justice for the blast victims have been held repeatedly in the country since 2020. Earlier this month, hundreds of the relatives of the victims of the blast staged a protest in Beirut in front of the Justice Palace.