BEIRUT — The Public Prosecutor of Lebanon's Court of Cassation Ghassan Oueidat has ordered the release of all 17 suspects detained in connection with the deadly 2020 Beirut port blast, according to a judicial document seen by L'Orient Today Wednesday.
Judge Oueidat has also issued charges against Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the port blast investigation. Bitar said he won't step down from the probe.
"I will not let go of the case until the indictment is issued," the judge told L'Orient-Le Jour Wednesday. He denounced "the blatant violation of the law," after Oueidat initiated proceedings against him and ordered the release of all blast detainees. Bitar added, however, that the indictment's release "is not imminent."
Oueidat ordered the "release of all those detained over the Beirut port explosion case, without exception" and banned them from travel, the document said.
Among these 17 people are a US national as well as the directors of customs and the port.
Badri Daher released
These three were not among the five detainees Bitar ordered released on Monday, when he decided to resume the investigation on his own. He then decided to charge several high-ranking officials, including the prosecutor general and two senior security officials.
Former Lebanese Customs chief Badri Daher, who was among those detained in the course of the Beirut port blast investigation, has been released, his sister confirmed to Reuters. Images of Daher after his release have been circulating in local media.
Daher, who is close to the Aounist camp, was the most senior official to be detained in the investigation.
Oueidat sues Bitar
Judge Oueidat also charged Judge Bitar for "rebelling against the judiciary" and slapped him with a travel ban.
Oueidat said that in order to "prevent sedition" he had "charged investigative judge Tarek Bitar and banned him from travel for rebelling against the judiciary."
A judicial official said Oueidat had summoned Bitar for questioning on Thursday morning.
According to a judicial source who spoke on condition of anonymity, Bitar has refused to appear on Thursday.
The decision of the prosecutor's office on Wednesday comes amid a tug-of-war between Oueidat and Bitar.
"Oueidat withdrew from the port investigation and the Court of Cassation accepted that he withdraw," Bitar told L'Orient-Le Jour. "In addition, I have initiated proceedings against him," adding that Oueidat is therefore a suspect.
Lebanon's top prosecutor at the Court of Cassation had initially withdrawn from the case, on the grounds that he has a family relationship with Ghazi Zeaiter, one of the MPs implicated by Bitar.
Regarding his travel ban, Bitar said that "it is Abbas Ibrahim, in his capacity as Director General of General Security who must execute this decision." Abbas Ibrahim "has no right to do so since I have initiated proceedings against him."
Oueidat informed Bitar Tuesday that his investigation into the port explosion remains suspended, according to correspondence consulted by Reuters.
"He has no right to say that I am no longer on the case," Bitar said. "My dismissal is the prerogative of the minister of justice and the Supreme Judicial Council together."
Contacted by L'Orient-Le Jour, Shukri Sader, a former member of the Shura Council, corroborated Bitar's claims, saying prosecutor Oueidat had recused himself from the case.
"Oueidat forgot that he had recused himself and now wants to take over the case. This is unprecedented in judicial history, worldwide," Sader said. "It is a real Tower of Babel."
"We have never seen an investigating judge attack the public prosecutor and vice versa. A cockfight, which leads to what? It undermines the authority of the judiciary," Sader added. "This power that has been targetted continuously since the 90s, and which ends up collapsing from within."
"This is a madhouse!"
"The law does not allow the prosecutor general to order the release of detainees. The one who ordered their arrest is the only one entitled to ask for their release," former prosecutor general Hatem Madi told L'Orient-Le Jour.
Ghassan Khoury, Advocate General at the Court of Cassation and one of the officials prosecuted by Judge Bitar, told L'Orient-Le Jour that "the prosecutor general's office is entitled to order the release of detainees under Article 137 of the Code of Criminal Procedure."
"In any case, many detainees in the investigation have been arrested by order of the prosecutor of cassation, who referred them to the investigating judge at the Court of Justice," Khoury added.
"This is a madhouse! The Public Prosecutor's office does not have the authority to release prisoners," Joseph Samaha, former chief magistrate of the Court of Justice, told L'Orient-Le Jour. "This is a criminal offense under Article 425 of the Penal Code, which states that facilitating the escape of detainees is an offense punishable by imprisonment. If the security forces participate in this offense, they will have to be punished."
Families of the blast victims have called for a gathering in Beirut to condemn Oueidat's decision.
The explosion on Aug. 4, 2020 killed more than 220 people and injured 6,500 others after a warehouse at the Beirut port containing hundreds of tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate caught fire. So far, no senior officials have been held accountable.
On Tuesday, Judge Bitar filed a lawsuit against the Prime Minister at the time of the blast, Hassan Diab, as well as the Public Prosecutor at the Court of Cassation Ghassan Oueidat, who on Tuesday rejected all of Bitar's decisions in a letter. The decision to prosecute a public prosecutor is unprecedented in the history of Lebanon. Three other magistrates linked to the case are also being prosecuted, two judicial sources told Reuters.
Judge Bitar also filed charges against Director of General Security Abbas Ibrahim, and General Tony Saliba, head of State Security, in connection with the blast, as well as former army commander-in-chief Jean Kahwagi, judicial officials said, without specifying the charges.
All those previously prosecuted by Judge Bitar denied any wrongdoing.