Against all expectations, it only took twenty-four hours for the appointment, last Friday, of a new investigating judge to continue the investigation opened more than six months ago to determine the precise circumstances and responsibilities. in the gigantic double explosion of the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020. Until then president of the Criminal Court of Beirut, Tarek el-Bitar, 46, will have the heavy burden of providing answers to the families of the victims, who despair of ‘one day obtain the truth in this tragedy which has caused more than 200 deaths, 6,500 injuries and pulverized the east of the Lebanese capital. The investigation has so far raised more questions than answers, while the tragedy has traumatized the entire population, already mired in a deep economic crisis.
The magistrate succeeds Judge Fadi Sawan, dismissed on Thursday February 18 on a decision of the Criminal Chamber of the Court of Cassation, causing outrage in the country. At the origin of this exclusion, the complaint formulated in mid-December 2020 against the judge for “legitimate suspicion of incompetence” by two former ministers of finance and public works, Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter , today deputies (Shiite movement Amal, the party of the president of parliament, Nabih Berry) in which they considered that the procedures launched by the judge violated the Constitution and the provisions relating to their parliamentary immunity. By indicting them alongside the resigning Prime Minister Hassan Diab and another ex-minister, Youssef Fenianos (Marada, the Christian party of Sleiman Frangié), for “negligence and having caused hundreds of deaths”, Fadi Sawan had hammered that ‘he “would not hesitate to prosecute any official, however high-placed, and would not stop in front of any immunity or red line”, given the extent of the tragedy suffered by the Lebanese on August 4.
“Indicting ministers was almost new”
This rebound had, at the time, caused an uproar in the political class. Several former prime ministers (Sunnis) had rushed to rescue Hassan Diab, whom they had until then almost boycotted. “Indicting ministers was almost new in Lebanon, they are untouchables”, comments Nizar Saghieh, lawyer and executive director of the NGO Legal Agenda, which campaigns for the independence of justice in Lebanon. “What Judge Sawan dared to do does not only concern the port affair, but more broadly, corruption. And that poses fundamental questions for Lebanese justice, ”he continues. Ziad Baroud, lawyer and former Minister of the Interior, points out for his part the need to “put an end to absolute immunity, undemocratic and contrary to the equality of all before the law”.
Two months later, the ax fell. The Court of Cassation ruled that Judge Sawan could not be “objective”, because he himself was “directly affected by the explosion”, his apartment having been damaged. An argument strongly criticized by the President of Beirut, Melhem Khalaf. “Didn’t the moral damage affect all the Lebanese?” he says. The Court also ruled that the examining magistrate himself had violated the law, by disregarding immunities, the presidents, ministers and prime ministers to be tried according to the Constitution by a high court created by the parliament, for very specific cases, such as treason or breaches. “The verdict is in line with the demands of the political class, which contributes to the overthrow of the Lebanese legal and social order by the fact that it protects immunity and paves the way for impunity”, deplores Nizar Saghieh.
No international collaboration
In this context, many challenges await Judge Tarek Bitar, who a priori enjoys a reputation as a man of “integrity” and “conscientiousness”. “Will he really have a margin of freedom in his investigation?” asks Ziad Baroud. “The important thing is that he can face the pressures, because he will be obliged to obtain results, even if it is a complex crime”, adds Melhem Khalaf, whose order of lawyers is deals with 1200 victim files. “We will not relax our control”, he warns, while observing that, “so far, we have not seen international collaboration in this investigation”. “The whole question now is whether Judge Bitar will respect the red lines imposed by the Court of Cassation or suffer the same fate as Fadi Sawan,” concludes Nizar Saghieh.
As for the main interested party, he said Monday in the columns of L’Orient-Le Jour that “nothing would stop him” and that he “would not let (the investigation) deviate”. The families of the victims, who met him Monday morning, are already noting a change of style since the magistrate has promised to “keep them regularly informed of the course of his investigations”.
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