BEIRUT — The families of the victims of the 2020 Beirut port explosion issued a statement Saturday afternoon reiterating their support for the investigation into the catastrophic blast led by Judge Tarek Bitar. The statement came after a video circulated showing the families’ spokesperson Ibrahim Hoteit calling for Bitar’s resignation from the probe.
Here’s what we know:
• The statement, issued by the Association of Families of Victims of the Beirut Port Explosion and the Group of Committees for the Families of Martyrs, Victims and Wounded, raises the question of whether Hoteit’s video was produced under duress, positing that “it seems new circumstances led him to issue his last surprising statement on behalf of the families of the victims, knowing that this position does not represent them or us at all.”
• The statement goes on to say, “We, the families of the victims as well as the wounded, are still steadfast on our previous positions regarding the trust we gave to Judge Bitar to take over the investigation of the case. We stress here that our cause is higher and loftier than plunging it into political, sectarian and authoritarian quarrels. We reiterate the need for all wanted persons to comply with justice before the investigation.”
• Political opposition to Bitar’s probe has mounted in recent weeks as the judge has sought to bring three sitting MPs and other senior officials in for questioning. On Thursday, a demonstration organized by Hezbollah and Amal to protest what they describe as Bitar’s “politicization” of the investigation ended in bloodshed when shooting broke out in Beirut’s Tayyouneh neighborhood as the protesters made their way toward the nearby Justice Palace. Seven people died and at least 30 were wounded in the hourslong clashes.
• In the video that began circulating on social media late Friday, Hoteit begins by saying, “I was forced to write a statement, so as not to make a mistake in speaking in the recording.” As he continues speaking, he repeatedly looks to the side, as if someone is overseeing his recording. Hoteit goes on to offer his condolences to the families of those killed in the Tayyouneh clashes before turning his attention to the port explosion investigation and addressing Bitar directly: “To Judge Bitar we say, what is happening shows that there is blatant bias and politicization and innocent blood has been shed. This is why we ask you to recuse yourself, in order to make room for another examining magistrate who is faithful to the blood that we have shed.”
• Hoteit’s brother, Tharwat, was killed in the port explosion. Since then, he has been the spokesperson for the families and has repeatedly voiced his support for Bitar. Recently, he was physically assaulted and threatened by supporters of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, during a rally near Berri’s residence. William Noun, brother of Joe Noun, one of the firefighters killed in the blast, told our sister publication L’Orient-Le Jour that Hoteit was undoubtedly threatened, saying “The words that Ibrahim Hoteit made were under threat. He usually does not speak like that.”
• Meanwhile, Karlen Hitti Karam, another relative of the victims, told L’Orient-Le Jour that the group had not been able to reach Hoteit since Saturday morning. "We have not been able to reach him since this morning. The press release he read was not prepared in coordination with the families, whereas usually no press release is issued without coordination between us," she said.