Any who hoped Judge Tarek Bitar would be able to resume his investigation of the Aug. 4, 2020, Beirut port blast were again disappointed.
Two MPs involved in the investigation — Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil, both of whom are associated with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri — filed a lawsuit against the state on Oct. 19 alleging serious faults by Judge Jean-Marc Oueiss.
Just days earlier, Judge Oueiss was appointed by Higher Judicial Council (HJC) President Souheil Abboud to rule on dismissal requests filed against Bitar — requests filed by MPs Zeaiter and Khalil.
The lawsuit prevents Judge Oueiss from ruling on the dismissal requests. Judge Bitar is therefore still prevented from continuing his investigation into the Aug. 4, 2020 blast, a tragedy that killed more than 220 people and injured thousands more.
The first step in resuming the investigation would be for the plenary assembly of the Court of Cassation to dismiss the lawsuits alleging serious faults by Judge Oueiss.
However, the plenary assembly has been paralyzed since January due to a lack of quorum. Several seats in the court remain vacant, and caretaker Finance Minister Youssef Khalil — who is also close to Speaker Berri — has continually postponed signing a draft decree to appoint new judges and reinstate the assembly.
The obstacles to the investigation seemed insurmountable over the last several months, but a glimmer of hope arose a fortnight ago.
The president of the first civil chamber of the Court of Cassation, Naji Eid — who was also targeted by a lawsuit filed by Zeaiter and Khalil — decided to recuse himself from the case.
Judge Abboud then appointed Jean-Marc Oueiss as interim head of the chamber to examine the dismissal requests against Judge Bitar.
But Zeaiter and Khalil have grown savvy at judicial maneuvers. In addition to Oueiss, the two MPs have filed similar lawsuits targeting Abboud and multiple judges with the Court of Cassation.
Now Judge Oueiss's hands are tied indefinitely.
“Judge Eid had no right to withdraw himself from examining the recusal request against Tarek Bitar that we filed against him,” Samer Hajj, a lawyer representing Zeaiter and Khalil, told L’Orient-Le Jour. “As the subject of the lawsuit for serious fault, which we filed, [Eid] was not supposed to make any decision related to the dismissal requests.”
Even if he decided to withdraw himself from the case, as requested by the two MPs?
“Yes, because it was not up to him to make a decision related to a file he no longer has control over,” Hajj argued.
Hajj claimed Abboud committed two faults: one by referring Eid's recusal request to a chamber in the Court of Cassation, and the other by appointing a judge to replace him.
“Naji Eid's request is null and void, as are all the decisions related to it,” Hajj said. “Any act built on an act that is null is also null.”
This argument was castigated by a high-ranking judge who categorically refuted any idea of “serious fault.”
Speaking to L'Orient-Le Jour, this judge claimed Eid has an “absolute and sacred” right to recuse himself.
“No one can prevent him from having a feeling of embarrassment that leads him to abandon the case,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “As for the decisions made by judges Abboud and Harake, they are administrative. However, only judicial decisions are likely to be targeted by a lawsuit against the state for serious faults.”
The judge condemned “the misuse of a law by individuals who do not respect the restrictive conditions for filing of such lawsuits, which should remain extraordinary.”