Hundreds of people protest after second suspension of probe over Beirut port explosion

Hundreds of protesters gathered in the Lebanese capital on Wednesday, two days after the investigation into the deadly explosion in the port of Beirut was suspended for the second time.

“We are here to tell politicians: stop your corruption and get out of the courthouse,” said lawyer Cécile Roukoz, whose brother Joseph, also a lawyer, died in the explosion which left at least 215 dead in last august.

Ms. Roukoz spoke to The National Soon after, a handful of protesters briefly stormed the courthouse, hanging up a huge banner with photos of the victims and a message that read “you won’t kill us twice”.

Protesters outside the building held banners with “they knew” written on the faces of politicians and senior security officials.

This apparently referred to the fact that they knew that hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in the port of Beirut for seven years before the cargo exploded, destroying much of the capital on August 4, 2020. .

One face that appeared on several of the protesters’ banners was that of MP Nohad Machnouk. Former Interior Minister Machnouk forced Judge Tarek Bitar to suspend his investigation on Monday after filing a complaint with the Beirut Court of Appeal, accusing him of bias. Two other former ministers, Youssef Fenianos and Ghazi Zeaiter, have taken similar action, which automatically puts the investigation on hold, legal experts have said.

It is now up to the court of appeal to decide whether to respond favorably to their request. The court has no time limit to respond. However, the court has no jurisdiction to remove Bitar, lawyer Ghida Frangieh said, calling the decision “illegal and abusive” in a video released Wednesday by Lebanese watchdog Legal Agenda.

“The investigation is temporarily suspended,” she said. “However, this is not the end of the investigation, but a step in a long and difficult process to achieve justice for the August 4 victims and break the system of impunity that has prevailed for 30 years.”

Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch, said The National that “the game of the political establishment is now to set up all possible obstacles for Mr. Bitar to delay and hinder his investigation and prevent him from holding them accountable”.

Ms Roukoz rejected appeals from MPs as a ploy to buy time until October 19, when parliament will sit again for the next four months. This means that Mr Bitar will need Parliament’s approval to summon MPs.

She said: “All of Lebanon thinks that if the politicians continue their corrupt ways, it is the end. We are all going to emigrate. “

Other protesters outside the Beirut courthouse echoed his views.

“So unfair, so unbearable”

“It’s so ridiculous. They think they can remove a judge because he is against them. It’s so cheap, so unfair, so unbearable, ”said Gabrielle Macaron, neurologist.

Parliament has rejected Bitar’s requests to lift the immunity of sitting MPs in the past, arguing instead that a special tribunal for ministers and presidents should be set up by the House to investigate the blast .

But the court has not ruled once in recent decades, and victims’ families and legal experts reject such a procedure.

The constitution stipulates that ministers are only tried before the special tribunal in two cases, when they commit high treason or fail in their duties. Mr. Bitar is investigating crimes of homicide and personal injury that are outside of ministerial work, Ms. Frangieh said.

“The choice is between a court and no court,” she said.

Lebanese media reported that Hezbollah spy master Wafic Safa had recently threatened Mr. Bitar. Videos shared on social networks show protesters outside the court chanting “Hezbollah is a terrorist”.

The families of the victims of the port explosion are normally reluctant to politicize their demonstrations, which they organize regularly. A spokesperson for the families of the victims, Ibrahim Hoteit, issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon “rejecting any exploitation or politicization of the blood of their relatives”.

MP Alain Aoun, member of the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun, said The National before the protest he did not believe that Mr. Bitar would be replaced. “They can’t just get rid of him,” he said. “I think the debate will continue to focus on whether it is the judge or Parliament who can investigate MPs or not.”

Update: September 29, 2021, 4:43 p.m.

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