Lebanon News

Ex-ministers file lawsuits to fire Beirut blast investigator

An areal view shows Beirut port on May 27, 2021, with the grain silos in the foreground, damaged in a massive explosion on August 4 last year, which killed more than 200 people and injured scores of others. (AFP / DYLAN COLLINS)

BEIRUT: Three former ministers filed lawsuits Friday requesting the replacement of Judge Tarek Bitar as head of the investigation into last year's Beirut Port blast, days before he was scheduled to interrogate them on suspicion of negligence and maladministration.

Judicial sources said lawyers for former Interior Minister Nouhad Al-Machnouk filed a lawsuit before the Court of Criminal Appeals, requesting that the Beirut Port explosion file be transferred from the custody of Bitar and the appointment of another judge to investigate this case due to “legitimate suspicion.”

Machnouk relied on several reasons, including what he called "violating the Constitution, in terms of insisting on prosecuting the [former] Prime Minister [Hassan Diab] and the ministers before the Judicial Council, while the authority belongs to the Supreme Council to try presidents and ministers," one source said.

On the other hand, legal representatives of former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter filed a lawsuit before the Civil Court of Cassation, requesting the dismissal of Bitar, claiming that he “violated the law and the provisions of constitutional texts, especially the reference of the Parliament and the powers of the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers in holding a minister accountable for the crimes allegedly committed during the exercise of his ministerial duties," the source said.

In their lawsuits, Khalil and Zeaiter stressed that "it is clear that there is a 'legitimate suspicion' of Judge Bitar's actions that do not have any legal basis, in addition to publishing news through the media from sources close to him and making statements to the press."

The Criminal and Civil Courts of Cassation have begun to notify the parties to the case of the content of the two lawsuits which eventually require the suspension of all investigation procedures as soon as they are notified to the judicial investigator.

Bitar Tuesday had set Oct. 12 as the date to interrogate Khalil, Oct. 13 for Machnouk and Zeaiter, and Oct. 28 for Diab.

He set the interviews a day after the Court of Cassation rejected legal complaints filed against him by some of the former ministers, paving the way for the judge to resume his probe which had been frozen last week.

Bitar, leading the probe into the Aug. 4, 2020, explosion that killed over 200 people, had been seeking to question the three ex-ministers -- all current members of Parliament -- and Diab for months now.

The questioning of the three former ministers is planned before Parliament reconvenes on Oct. 19, the day the three men would regain their parliamentary immunity.

Machnouk's office later released a detailed study by renowned French constitutional law expert Professor Dominique Rousseau that said the only body that has the legal authority to look into the case was the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers.

Legal complaints against Bitar had followed a smear campaign by Lebanon's political class against him and a reported warning by a senior Hezbollah official that he would be removed. Bitar would have been the second judge to be removed on such claims after his predecessor Judge Fadi Sawan was removed in February through a similar legal filing.

Efforts to question former and serving state officials, including the prime minister at the time of the blast, ex-ministers and senior security officials on suspicion of negligence have been repeatedly blocked.

Families of the victims of the blast, which destroyed large swaths of the capital Beirut, are furious that more than a year on no one has been held accountable.

 

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