BEIRUT – Another hurdle was thrown in the way of the Beirut port investigation when former Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab filed a suit against the Lebanese state Wednesday, one day before he was set to appear before chief Beirut blast investigator, Judge Tarek Bitar, for questioning.
The lawsuit, filed by Diab’s representatives in the Court of Cassation, argues that Bitar does not have the jurisdiction to prosecute the former premier and that the power to do so lies with the Supreme Council, a special body set up to try heads of state and ministers, a judicial source told L'Orient Today.
Diab, who has been charged with criminal negligence over last year's catastrophic Beirut port explosion, has requested annulment of any decisions made so far relating to him in the investigation. Until the court rules on the lawsuit, the investigation into Diab must be put on hold.
The former premier, along with a number of other Lebanese officials, knew of the existence of the ammonium nitrate that was stored in the port for years and detonated the blast, killing more than 200 people and wounding thousands. He has repeatedly refused to appear for questioning, maintaining the argument that Bitar does not have the jurisdiction to prosecute him.
In September, Diab went to the United States, reportedly to visit his children, less than a week before a scheduled hearing. In August, Bitar had issued a subpoena and ordered security forces to bring in Diab for interrogation on Sept. 20 after he had failed to appear for an earlier hearing.
Diab was also charged with “criminal negligence” in relation to the Beirut port blast by Bitar’s predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawwan, who was removed as lead investigator in February after two former ministers and current MPs who have also been charged in the case — Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter — requested that the Court of Cassation transfer the probe to another judge.
“It's clear now that [the political class] are going to use any means possible” to block the investigation, Youssef Lahoud, a lawyer who represents people impacted by the blast, told L’Orient Today.
“However, even as a former prime minister or a current prime minister, nothing says he cannot come before the judiciary. The only person who the judiciary cannot summon is the President, as per Article 60 of Lebanon’s Constitution,” Lahoud explained.
Nizar Saghieh, executive director of the watchdog group Legal Agenda, said that Bitar’s strategy now appears to be one of resistance to set a new precedent in Lebanon’s judicial procedures.
“The more he [Bitar] resists, the more this will … facilitate a change in the relationship between judges and politicians,” Saghieh told L’Orient Today.
“This is how society progresses… This will redefine the future of the country and who a judge can prosecute. [Bitar] is trying to set a different kind of precedent. Don't underestimate the symbolic effect of these decisions,” he said.
Bitar is expected to question Zeaitar and Nohad Machnouk, another current MP and former minister, on Friday. Both have repeatedly failed to show up for questioning and have used their parliamentary immunity as protection against interrogation. However, Parliament’s bylaws state that proceedings begun against MPs outside a legislative session may continue without Parliament’s permission.
The news of Diab’s lawsuit came hours after Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea failed to turn up for a hearing at army intelligence on Wednesday over deadly Oct. 14 Tayyouneh clashes.
While he has voiced support for Bitar’s right to press ahead with questioning top officials in the port probe, Geagea has insisted that he will only show up for questioning in the Tayyouneh investigation if Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is also called in.
Lawyers for Geagea submitted a brief to military court Judge Fadi Akiki claiming that a summons he issued for the politician in the Tayyouneh investigation was illegal.
Geagea had been summoned by Akiki to give testimony over the clashes, with a hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday morning. The summons followed accusations by Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal Movement, that the Lebanese Forces members had opened fire on a protest march by Hezbollah and Amal members on Oct. 14, killing seven people.
Akiki, who charged 68 people in relation to the clashes, became the latest target of a removal request this week. The representatives of those detained filed a legal petition to the Beirut Appeals Court for Akiki's removal from the case.
A similar maneuver by the political class was executed only last month, when Khalil and Zeaitar — both sitting Amal Movement MPs — filed a legal complaint to the Court of Appeals to remove Bitar.
Article 125 of Lebanon's Code of Civil Procedure, which applies to the Court of Appeals, stipulates that a judge’s work is automatically suspended when a lawsuit is filed against them.
Legal experts have said that the move is merely a stalling tactic to circumvent questioning.
“For the Court of Appeals to remove a judge, they have to fall under the court's jurisdiction. The Military Court is not under the Court of Appeals … So, as with Bitar's case, they file the complaint knowing it suspends the investigation until a decision is made,” explained a legal source.
BEIRUT – Another hurdle was thrown in the way of the Beirut port investigation when former Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab filed a suit against the Lebanese state Wednesday, one day before he was set to appear before chief Beirut blast investigator, Judge Tarek Bitar, for questioning.The lawsuit, filed by Diab’s representatives in the Court of Cassation, argues that Bitar does not have...