BEIRUT — Three years after the Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion, and nearly eight months since the blast investigation was suspended for a fifth time, victims’ relatives will march today under the slogan “for justice and accountability: We persevere.”
The Higher Judicial Council appointed Judge Tarek Bitar to head the port blast probe in February 2021, after the Court of Cassation ruled in favor of dismissal requests lodged against Judge Fadi Sawwan six months after he was assigned the case.
Requests to dismiss Bitar led to a longer, more complicated judicial spat. L’Orient Today chronicles the repeated challenges Bitar has faced in trying to get to the bottom of the Aug. 4 disaster.
Each time the magistrate resumes the investigation, another appeal stops it dead, and those charged with adjudicating the validity of the appeal find themselves subject to appeals and procedural challenges. According to judicial sources, Bitar has even found himself in receipt of a threat from Hezbollah’s security chief, Wafic Safa.
According to Article 125 of Lebanon’s Code of Civil Procedure, which applies to the Court of Appeals, a judge’s work is automatically suspended when a lawsuit is filed against them.
Three days after Bitar summoned them for questioning, former Interior Minister and then-MP Nohad Machnouk and MPs Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter (all affiliated to the Amal Movement) filed a lawsuit against the judge on Sept. 24, 2021. The suspects claimed that only the Supreme Council, a body appointed by the Parliament with authority to prosecute MPs and ministers, can try them. The Beirut Court of Appeals rejected the lawsuit on Oct. 4, 2021, saying it lacks jurisdiction over the matter.
Hours after Bitar issued an arrest warrant for Khalil on Oct. 12, 2021, Khalil and Zeaiter filed new complaints, questioning the judge’s impartiality. Two days later, the Court of Cassation dismissed the complaints. A day after the ruling, Hezbollah and Amal Movement supporters held a protest in Tayyouneh, southern Beirut, demanding Bitar’s removal. The demonstration led to hourslong armed clashes with alleged Lebanese Forces members, leaving seven people dead and injuring dozens more.
On Nov. 4, 2021, Bitar was forced to halt the probe again after being notified that another suspect in the case, former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos, had accused him of bias in the 15th lawsuit against him. A day earlier, Zeaiter and Khalil filed a lawsuit to dismiss Beirut Court of Appeals Judge Nassib Elia, accusing him of obstructing their previous case against Bitar, which he considered outside the court’s jurisdiction. Elia’s replacement, Judge Habib Mezher, suspended the probe and demanded to review the case before being removed by the Beirut Court of Appeals’ presiding judge, Habib Rizkallah. On Dec. 7, Bitar was allowed to resume after Fenianos’ lawsuit was overturned.
Bitar was suspended for a fourth time on Dec. 23, 2021, due to new complaints from Khalil and Zeaiter. On Jan. 25, 2022, Court of Cassation Judge Naji Eid, who had been assigned to rule on the complaints against Bitar, was suspended from the case after its plaintiffs requested his recusal. On Feb. 21, 2022, Khalil and Zeaiter once again sued Eid, a week after their first complaint was dismissed. Meanwhile, the complaint against Eid, and consequently the complaint against Bitar, could not be resolved due to a loss of quorum at the plenary assembly of the Court of Cassation. Blast victims’ relatives repeatedly called on caretaker Finance Minister Youssef Khalil (affiliated with the Amal movement) to approve judicial appointments to restore quorum — which he reportedly refuses to do, alleging that the magistrates chosen by the Higher Judicial Council would disturb the assembly’s sectarian balance. On Oct. 15, Eid recused himself from ruling on the complaint against Bitar. Four days later, Khalil and Zeaiter sued the judge replacing him, Jean-Marc Oueiss.
On Jan. 22 this year, despite unresolved complaints against him, Bitar attempted to relaunch the probe by releasing five detainees held in connection to the case and summoning eight new suspects. Bitar claimed that as an investigative judge appointed by the Justice Ministry and approved by the Higher Judicial Council, he is governed by the executive, rather than judicial, branch and cannot be suspended by the Court of Cassation. Three days later, top public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat sued Bitar for “usurpation of power” and released all detainees held in relation to the probe. It should be noted that Oueidat initially recused himself from any dealings related to the port blast when Judge Fadi Sawwan first filed charges against Zeaiter, who is Oueidat’s brother-in-law. In May, Judge Habib Rizkallah was appointed to rule on Oueidat’s complaint against Bitar. No further details about the case have been shared, rendering it unclear when a verdict can be expected. Last month, a judicial source told L’Orient Today that Bitar “is determined to complete his investigation sooner or later.”
According to lawyer Diane Assaf, recusal requests are among the rights of defendants and are intended to be used “if the defendant finds that the judge is partisan.” However, she told L’Orient Today that it is her impression that “their defense abused the legal loophole by filing countless and baseless lawsuits. In 15 years of practice I’ve only made one recusal request, it’s not something you use often.”