Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai pointed the finger on Sunday at caretaker Finance Minister Youssef Khalil, accusing him of being the cause of the suspension, for months, of the investigation into the Aug. 4, 2020, explosion at the Beirut port, which killed more than 220 and injured more than 6,500.
Because of Khalil, who has not signed a decree of judicial appointments that would allow the investigation, Tarek Bitar, "has his hands tied" according to Rai.
The Finance Ministry quickly defended itself by indicating that the said decree "has been referred for nearly a month to the competent judicial authorities to correct its "imbalance and ambiguities."
The accusation of the patriarch was launched while the investigation is the subject of a heated controversy since a decision taken last Tuesday by the Higher Judicial Council to appoint a different judge to the case.
Relatives of victims of the Aug. 4 tragedy see this initiative as a new form of political interference in an investigation already blocked from all sides. The decision was taken after a meeting between members of the council and MPs of the Free Patriotic Movement, to which one of the detainees, the former director general of customs, Badri Daher, is believed to be close.
Mistrust and politicization
In a homily given from Dimane (the patriarch's summer residence), Rai criticized the lack of trust between the Lebanese and the authorities "which leads to doubt towards all intentions and politicizes every decision," in reference to the reaction of caretaker Justice Minister Henri Khoury, who had accused the families of the victims demonstrating in front of his home on Wednesday night of being "on the payroll of embassies" and other political parties.
"Distrust and politicization lead to obstruction," the prelate lamented, before deploring the fact that political parties and groups live "in an atmosphere of hatred and malice" and that every opinion, "even objective ones, are considered dubious and politicized."
"Everyone knows that Judge Tarek Bitar remains in his post and at the head of the investigation into the explosion, but that his hands are tied because of the refusal of the minister of finance to sign the decrees of judicial appointments," said the head of the Maronite Church.
Youssef Khalil, close to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, must sign this decree which would appoint several members of the General Assembly of the Court of Cassation, the highest court of the judiciary responsible for examining all appeals against Bitar by the political leaders named in the investigation, including MPs and former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, both members of Berri's Amal Movement. The minister refuses to sign the decree which, according to him, does not respect the confessional balance.
'Painful and scandalous'
"The proposal of the justice minister to appoint an alternate judge does not influence the prerogatives of Judge Bitar," Rai added. Asserting that it is the right of the 18 people who remain incarcerated in relation to the investigation more than two years after the blast to be released, he insisted that this cannot be done "because Tarek Bitar's hands are tied," not because he does not want to address the fate of these detainees. The patriarch therefore proposed to take the opinion of the former presidents of the Higher Judicial Council on this issue in order to adopt a decision that would "reassure the families of the victims."
On Sunday afternoon, the Finance Ministry responded to Rai's criticism. "The draft decree for the appointments of members of the chambers of the Court of Cassation was referred nearly a month ago by the Finance Ministry, based on a note from the Justice Ministry, to the competent judicial authorities to correct its imbalance and ambiguities," the ministry stated.
The Metropolitan bishop of the Greek Orthodox church, Elias Audi, also criticized the decision of the Higher Judicial Council and Minister Khoury during his homily: "Rather than appointing an alternate judge, shouldn't the work of the original judge continue? It is painful and scandalous to obstruct the initial investigation and name a substitute," he said Sunday. "It is as if they are neglecting the spirit of the people, the pain of the injured and the families of the victims. Do we have to tolerate the absence of truth more than two years after the explosion that took the lives of people and the soul of the capital?" he asked.
President from an 'independent' background
The head of the Maronite Church also addressed the upcoming presidential election, as Lebanon has entered the two-month period during which Parliament must meet to elect a successor to Michel Aoun, whose term ends on Oct. 31.
"We refuse the paralysis of the country, the lack of formation of a government, the prevention of the presidential election and the forcing of a presidential vacancy," said Rai, who has repeatedly in recent weeks detailed the characteristics of his ideal president: a candidate who is not confrontational, but who is not from the camp of pro-Iran Hezbollah. In this context, he again called for the future head of state to come from "a national and independent background."
Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai pointed the finger on Sunday at caretaker Finance Minister Youssef Khalil, accusing him of being the cause of the suspension, for months, of the investigation into the Aug. 4, 2020, explosion at the Beirut port, which killed more than 220 and injured more than 6,500.Because of Khalil, who has not signed a decree of judicial appointments that would allow the...