BEIRUT — Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai said during Sunday homily that he “hopes that the judicial investigator, Judge Tarek Bitar, will continue his work to clarify the truth, issue an indictment, and seek the help of any international reference that can help reveal the truth [about Aug. 4, 2020, Beirut port explosion],” the state-run National News Agency reported.
On Wednesday, Lebanon's top prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, ordered the release of all the 17 suspects detained in relation to the Beirut port explosion investigation and initiated proceedings against lead investigating judge Tarek Bitar. Oueidat's move is considered by many observers to be a political act aimed at stalling the probe to protect the ruling political class to which his critics say he is close.
'When judges disagree on the law, who will agree on it?'
Oueidat's decision sparked protests in front of the Justice Palace in Beirut on Thursday to demand his removal from his position as top public prosecutor.
"Where is the justice when judges are busy waging internal wars?" Rai asked on Sunday.
“When judges disagree on the law, who will agree on it? Was the dispute really over the legal matters or over the obstruction of the course of the investigation into the port explosion crime?” Rai said.
Rai said that judges in Lebanon are now involved in “schemes of hatred and revenge” and are "prioritizing their own interests over the law." He went on to accuse the judiciary of “rebelling” against the victims of the port blast “instead of rebelling against politicians.”
“Releasing accused culprits in bulk and arresting the families of the port [explosion] victims, this is what the judiciary has come to in Lebanon,” the patriarch continued.
Earlier this month, State Security briefly detained William Noun, a spokesperson for one of the groups representing the relatives of the victims of the Beirut port blast.
Noun's interrogation followed a protest against the long suspension of Bitar's blast investigation. The protest had escalated into a confrontation with security forces, in which protesters threw stones and other objects at the Beirut Justice Palace, breaking windows. Several other victims' relatives were also brought in for questioning, sparking public outrage.
In his Sunday homily, Rai continued, “We regret seeing the lack of quorum affecting the meetings of judicial bodies, as judges and prosecutors bypass the Supreme Judicial Council and its president and refrain from attending the meetings. This is unacceptable! The judiciary has its own mechanism and hierarchy.”
The Higher Judicial Council, which administers Lebanon's court system, is responsible for ruling on the many appeals that have been filed against Bitar.
"The State is doing all it can to lose the populations's trust and push it towards an all-out revolution," Rai warned.
The Aug. 4, 2020, port explosion was caused by a fire in the port's Warehouse No. 12, where thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate — an explosive also used as fertilizer — were stored in 2013 without proper security measures.
On the topic of Lebanon's presidential election, Rai said that "the right and best president is the one who will bring the Lebanese back to Lebanon with stability and prosperity."
For the fourth time in Lebanon's history, the country is facing a presidential vacuum. Since the end of Michel Aoun's mandate on Oct. 31, Lebanese MPs have held 11 parliamentary sessions to elect his successor, but without success, due to the lack of political agreement on a candidate as is customary in Lebanon.
As in the previous 10 sessions, in the most recent session Amal and Hezbollah MPs, along with their allies, withdrew from the chamber after the first round of voting — forcing a lack of quorum and the ending of the session. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has not yet set a date for the next presidential election session.
Rai urged Parliament to hurry its election of a president because “the most dangerous thing is that we see the country today dominated by the security and military agencies in the absence of any political and constitutional authority and any government oversight …. This is all the result of not electing a president for the country. When the head is absent, the whole body dissipates."
Rai has said previously that the only solution to end the presidential vacuum in Lebanon is "the holding of an international conference" devoted to the issue under the auspices of the United Nations.
Lately, the Maronite patriarch hosted Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil and Marada Movement head Sleiman Frangieh, both Maronite figures and considered to be serious candidates for the presidency. Although both are allied with Hezbollah, Bassil and Frangieh are bitter rivals on the Christian political scene. Frangieh benefits form Hezbollah's support, while Bassil refuses to back the former's candidacy.