BEIRUT — Families of the victims of the Aug. 2020 Beirut port explosion protested Wednesday evening in front of Justice Minister Henry Khoury's apartment in Hazmieh, decrying a decision by the Higher Judicial council the previous day to appoint an alternate investigative judge in the blast probe.
The families were seen gathering on the fourth floor of the building where Khoury reportedly lives. "You are assassinating the law, they are assassinating our case," one protester said.
In a telephone interview with television station Al-Jadeed, Khoury said that the Higher Judicial Council "did not yet appoint any judge and ... did not remove" current investigation judge Tarek Bitar from his post. "There is no political interference in the port blast file and I am not the decision maker," Khoury also said.
Earlier today, the family members organized on Wednesday a sit-in in front of the Justice Palace to protest against the decision of the Higher Judicial council to appoint an alternate investigative judge in the case of the explosion.
Majeed Helou, father of the victim Nicole Helou, told L’Orient Today that an “ethical judge had already been appointed in our case and that is Tarek Bitar, and now they are trying to obstruct the investigation into our case to release their detainees.”
While the lead investigator Tarek Bitar is set to remain in his position, according to a judicial source who spoke to L’Orient-Le Jour, it is expected that Bitar will oppose this decision. The decision came after a meeting during which the ten members of the body approved a proposal by the caretaker Minister of Justice, Henry Khoury (known to be close to the Free Patriotic Movement) to appoint an alternative judge who would be responsible for ruling on issues related to the release of detainees who have been held, without trial, after the blast in alleged relation to the explosion.
However, experts have said that this pure "political interference." Aya Majzoub, Human Rights Watch's Lebanon researcher, tweeted, "This isn't about detainees' rights; it's about one detainee: Badri Daher, the customs chief, affiliated with the FPM. Yesterday, several FPM MPs visited the head of the Higher Judicial Council to 'discuss Daher's file.'"
Rima Zahed, sister of the victim Amine Zahed, who was an employee at the port, told L’Orient Today that the caretaker justice minister had not “known anything for the past two years regarding our case, and has woken up now to assassinate our case."
Almost two years after the tragedy, the investigation has been stalled by multiple political maneuvers and is currently suspended due to the different complaints filed against Bitar, notably by MPs Ghazi Zeaiter, Ali Hassan Khalil and former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos — who are all suspects in the investigation and have had warrants filed for their arrest. Despite them being suspects in the investigation, Zeaiter and Khalil were elected to Lebanon's Parliament in May 2022.
Caretaker Finance Minister Youssef Khalil, who is close to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, was accused of impeding the investigation by not signing judicial appointments, which have been blocked for several months for political reasons, putting the port blast probe on hold.