BEIRUT — A UN expert expressed "grave concern" on Wednesday regarding "interference" in the Aug. 4, port blast investigation, regarding threats against the investigating judge, Tarek Bitar.
In a statement, Margaret Satterthwaite, the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, "condemned the undue delays that have prevented justice for those affected by the blast."
Lead investigator Tarek Bitar announced in January that he was retaking control of the investigation after it was suspended for more than a year due to numerous judicial complaints filed by senior politicians implicated in the probe.
One of the people Bitar charged in January was Lebanon's top prosecutor, Judge Ghassan Oueidat.
In response, Oueidat ordered the release of all 17 detainees in the case, who had been held without a trial since the 2020 deadly explosion that killed more than 220 people and injured 6,500.
Oueidat also prosecuted Bitar for "rebellion against justice" and "usurpation of power."
“I am deeply disturbed by reports that former State officials and others who have been implicated in the case have disingenuously resorted to recusal proceedings and other challenging actions directed at the investigating judges appointed to examine the case,” Satterthwaite said Wednesday.
“This has led to the replacement of an investigating judge in February 2021, as well as several suspensions of the investigation in recent months."
Bitar's predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, was removed from his position when two former ministers — Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, both of whom were charged with criminal negligence in connection with the explosion — requested that the Court of Cassation transfer the case to another judge.
Khalil and Zeaiter challenged Sawan’s summons and asked the court to replace him, citing “legitimate suspicion” over the legality of the decision.
Almost three years after the tragedy, the investigation was stalled by multiple political maneuvers and is currently suspended due to different complaints filed against Bitar, notably by Zeaiter, Khalil and former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos — all of whom are being prosecuted in the investigation and had warrants filed for their arrest.
The UN expert pointed to reports that since the explosion was referred to the Lebanese Judicial Council for investigation, authorities have rejected judicial requests to lift parliamentary immunity and allow questioning of security officials. "The government has also failed to execute arrest warrants against former ministers. Judge Tarek Bitar who was appointed to lead the investigation in February 2021 has faced increasing obstacles and threats to carry out his work," the Special Rapporteur said.
“Judges should never be threatened or subjected to criminal or disciplinary action simply for doing their job,” the UN expert said.
In September 2021, during a visit to the Beirut Justice Palace, Hezbollah security chief Wafic Safa allegedly threatened Bitar after he summoned Khalil and Zeaiter for questioning.
“The victims of the explosion and their families have been seeking justice for more than two years,” Satterthwaite added.
She also urged Lebanese authorities to take immediate steps to protect the independence and integrity of the investigation and ensure that those responsible for the explosion can be held accountable.