The families of the victims of the explosion in Beirut gather to resume the investigation

The families of the victims of the explosion in Beirut gather to resume the investigation

Beirut (AFP) – Families of victims of last year’s explosion in Beirut port rallied Thursday outside Lebanon’s Supreme Court against what they described as deliberate obstructions to the investigation into the devastating blast. They said their message to the authorities was: “We are tired of waiting.”

Lebanon’s investigation into the August 2020 blast led by Judge Tariq Bitar was suspended for the third time earlier this month due to a deluge of legal challenges filed by defendants.

The latest suspension, now entering its fourth week, is the longest since Bitar took over the case in February, after his predecessor was impeached by court order. Other legal challenges resulted in only days of suspension.

In a statement, the families said the repeated obstructions to the investigation were “surprising and shameful.”

“The accused succeeded in drowning the case in a web of political and judicial complications,” the families’ spokesman, George Bezdjian, read from the statement, and Bezdjian’s daughter, Jessica, a nurse, was killed in the explosion.

The Bitar investigation faced at least 15 lawsuits, each of which questioned the investigation’s course, impartiality and authority. Most of the lawsuits were dropped by lower courts.

But earlier this month, a senior judge in the government-appointed Supreme Judicial Council agreed to the defendant’s request to disqualify Bitar, automatically halting the investigation until a final decision. Although another senior judge rejected the move on Wednesday, legal experts say Bitar will likely wait for a court decision that clearly states he can return to work.

It was not clear when the decision would be issued.

At the heart of the legal quagmire is criticism from senior Lebanese officials who were in charge when nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive used in fertilizers, were stored in the Beirut port and kept there for years. Bitar summoned dozens of high-ranking officials, some of whom were charged with criminal negligence and possible intent murder.

On August 4, 2020, nitrates ignited after a massive fire in the port. The explosion killed more than 216 people and injured more than 6000. Parts of Beirut were badly damaged.

The suspected officials initially claimed that parliamentary or professional immunity protected them from questioning by the judiciary. Then the lawsuits began. Last month, the leader of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group called for Bitar to be removed.

The investigation also paralyzed the government after ministers allied with Hezbollah demanded that the cabinet respond to calls for Bitar’s ouster.

The families of the blast victims demanded the judiciary to allow the investigation to resume. And they said to those who obstruct the investigation: “History will not have mercy on you.”

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