BEIRUT — The Council of State has nullified a recent decision by caretaker Interior Minister Mawlawi that would have further hindered Beirut port blast judge Tarek Bitar’s already frozen investigation into the deadly explosion, according to a copy of the judgment seen by L’Orient-Le Jour.
The nullification, issued two weeks ago on Nov. 7, opens a tiny glimmer of hope that the Lebanese investigation into the Aug. 4, 2020 blast, which killed more than 200 people, could soon continue, eventually holding relevant authorities responsible.
On Sept. 22, 2021, Mawlawi issued a decision stating that the Internal Security Forces (ISF) were not required to notify defendants of judicial summonses. The task was instead entrusted to judicial officers, who have no means to force the summonees to accept the summons.
A day before Mawlawi issued his now-annulled decision in September, Bitar had scheduled hearings for MPs and former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, as well as former minister Nohad Machnouk — all of whom were implicated in the port blast.
The Council of State's decision follows a lawsuit by former Beirut Bar Association President Melhem Khalaf to annul Mawlawi’s directive. The complaint was presented on behalf of Amine Sadek, who is among nearly 1,400 plaintiffs represented by a complaints office set up for blast victims.
In proceedings before the Council of State, Sadek had argued that Mawlawi violated Article 147 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that “summonses, warrants, judgments and judicial measures are served and executed by special brigades under the direct orders of the Attorney General, the chief investigating judge and the presidents of the competent jurisdictions and courts.”
Sadek also pointed out that Mawlawi, a former magistrate, “applied this article himself when he presided over the Criminal Court of North Lebanon.'”
Before the high court, Sadek's lawyers claimed that the “implicit objective” of the ministerial measure was to “hinder the investigation” into the port blast.
On Jan. 2, 2022, the Interior Ministry declared in response that “there were neither security reasons, exceptional circumstances nor a lack of bailiffs that prevented the [ISF] from executing the summons in the ordinary way.”
“The ISF are not obliged to carry out summons notifications,” the ministry added.
Arbitrary power and dangerous precedent
The Council of State also refuted arguments that Mawlawi had used his discretionary power in issuing the September decision, instead stating that “discretionary power does not mean arbitrary power and illegal decision.”
The council also condemned the fact that Mawlawi made his decision based on a note sent to him by the Director General of the ISF. The note allegedly stated that carrying out the judicial summonses could “harm the ISF's leadership and involve it in political strife likely to affect its independence and neutrality.”
According to the Council of State’s decision, “giving the judicial police the power to assess the political situation and the appropriateness of executing notifications constitutes a dangerous precedent that could obstruct the course of justice and paralyze public service.”
Contacted by L'Orient-Le Jour, Akram Azoury, a member of the complaints office representing the blast victims, welcomed the Council of State's decision. “Administrative justice has asserted its independence from the executive power by controlling the legality of its acts,” he said, adding that “the ruling contributes to restoring the Lebanese people's trust in their justice.”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour.