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PORT BLAST INVESTIGATION

Appeals court throws out claims against Bitar, allowing port investigation to resume

Appeals court throws out claims against Bitar, allowing port investigation to resume

The Beirut Appeals Court’'s decision will allow Judge Tarek Bitar to resume work on the Beirut port blast investigation. (Credit: NNA)

BEIRUT — The Beirut Court of Appeals has unanimously rejected two lawsuits requesting to have investigating Judge Tarek Bitar removed from the 2020 Beirut port blast investigation over suspicion of negligence and maladministration.

One of the claims was filed by former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter, both of whom are also sitting MPs, and one by MP and former Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk.

This means the investigation can resume after a weeklong delay stemming from the claims. Bitar now effectively has until Oct. 19 to pursue the investigation against the three sitting MPs, on which date Parliament is scheduled to go back into session, thus granting them legal immunity. If President Michel Aoun were to call an extraordinary session of Parliament, the legislature and the immunities could return before that date.

In its ruling, the court said that it lacked jurisdiction over the matter, something legal experts noted at the time of the complaints’ filing. Two cases at the Beirut Court of Appeals in 2007, which sought to remove the judicial investigator in the Rafic Harriri assassination case and were dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, set a precedent for today’s ruling. That process held up the investigation by more than a month. In contrast, the lawsuits to unseat Bitar caused a suspension of seven days.

The court also fined the three MPs LL800,000 each. The civil society group Legal Agenda said the fines were issued for bringing “arbitrary” claims.

Wissam Laham, a constitutional law professor at Saint Joseph University, told L’Orient Today that the decision was “foreseen and expected” in light of the precedent and praised the court for being “swift and prompt.”

“The issue of the port's martyrs is a rights issue. Rights are never lost as long as people strive to claim them!” tweeted May Chidiac, a former state minister for administrative reform, who survived an assassination attempt in 2005 and received no justice in her case.

Families of the port blast victims and others had railed against the move by politicians to challenge Bitar in the Court of Appeals. Last week Legal Agenda blasted Machnouk’s lawsuit as “illegal and purely arbitrary.”

The victims’ families are set to hold their monthly vigil to mark the anniversary of the blast this afternoon.

Bitar still faces obstacles in the investigation, including a legal challenge at the Court of Cassation brought by former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos, for whom an arrest warrant has been issued in relation to the case, that has not been decided. But unlike the Court of Appeals cases, this complaint does not necessarily result in the investigation’s suspension.

Bitar also reportedly received a threat of removal from the case from Hezbollah security head Wafic Safa. On Friday the United States Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee weighed in on the matter, saying it was “extremely concerned” by the investigation’s suspension and “alarmed by Hezbollah’s reported role in driving the decision to suspend this critical investigation.”

The intervention proved controversial. MP Hasan Fadlallah (Hezbollah/Bint Jbeil) called it “a blatant attack on Lebanon's sovereignty, and an open interference in these investigations.”

On Monday, a wave of social media users deployed the hashtag #الاميركي_مغطي_بيطار, or “#TheAmericansAreCoveringforBitar.”


BEIRUT — The Beirut Court of Appeals has unanimously rejected two lawsuits requesting to have investigating Judge Tarek Bitar removed from the 2020 Beirut port blast investigation over suspicion of negligence and maladministration.One of the claims was filed by former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter, both of whom are also sitting MPs, and one...