Public Prosecutor at the Court of Cassation Ghassan Oueidat ordered Jan. 25 the release of the 17 people in custody since the deadly explosion of Aug. 4, 2020.
Contested by the victims’ families and several judges who have questioned its legality, this decision comes as the tug of war escalates between the head of the prosecution, brother-in-law of former minister Ghazi Zeaïter, and investigating judge Tarek Bitar. Bitar’s probe into the Beirut port explosion has been suspended for more than a year by several requests and lawsuits seeking his removal.
Of the 25 people detained in the days following the Aug. 4 tragedy, eight had already been scheduled for release. In April 2021, judge Bitar decided to free Joseph Naddaf and Charbel Fawaz, commanders in the State Security and General Security respectively; Elias Chahine and Khaled Khatib, chief sergeants at the Customs Directorate; and Port Authority employees Mikhaël Murr and Johnny Gerges. Three months later, two other detainees were released: Daoud Fayad, a commander at the General Security (considered close to Talal Arslan) and Nayla al-Hage, an engineer contracted to ensure that maintenance on port infrastructure was carried out according to technical standards.
On Jan. 23, Bitar decided to resume his investigation and released five of the 17 people freed Wednesday: former customs director Chafik Merhi (Badri Daher's predecessor); Ahmad Rajab, an employee working at the warehouse at the time of the explosion; Selim Chebli, the electrical contractor overseeing the work; Sami Hussein, director of operations at the port; and Michel Nahoul, the port’s project director.
That same day the investigating judge opened proceedings against several political, judicial and administrative figures, including former prime minister Hassan Diab and public prosecutor Oueidat. Supported by a part of the political class and security apparatus, Oueidat opened proceedings against Bitar for “rebellion against justice” and “usurpation of power” and banned his leaving Lebanese territory.
This story was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour, translated by Joelle Khoury.