As tensions rise, Lebanese protest port blast suspension

Hundreds of Lebanese, including families of the Beirut port explosion victims, have rallied outside the court of justice in the capital

BEIRUT -- Hundreds of Lebanese, including families of Beirut port explosion victims, rallied Wednesday in the capital to support the judge investigating the blast after he was forced to suspend his work.

The suspension was triggered by a legal challenge submitted by a former Cabinet minister, who is a defendant in the case. A court must now rule on whether he should be removed or can continue the investigation.

Several lawmakers and former officials charged in the case by Bitar have filed lawsuits against him, asking that he step down on grounds of violating the law or showing bias.

More than a year after the blast that devastated the city and killed more than 200 people, there are no answers to what caused highly explosive materials stored in the port for years to ignite on Aug. 4, 2020, or why they had been stored there.

An investigation by rights groups and local media revealed that most of Lebanon’s senior leadership and security agencies knew of the nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate and did little to protect residents of Beirut against it. But over the past year, senior politicians have closed ranks in their efforts to block the probe.

On Wednesday, the French government said it regrets the suspension of the investigation.

“Lebanese justice must work transparently, sheltered from all political interference," French Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anne-Claire Legendre told reporters in Paris. "It is up to the Lebanese authorities to allow the probe to continue with all the necessary financial and human resources so it can shed light on what happened on Aug. 4 and meet the legitimate expectations of the Lebanese people.”

The attempt to remove Bitar has angered families of the victims.

Local media reports have said that Bitar reported to prosecutors threats he received by a senior Hezbollah official, through a third party, which said it was losing patience with the way he is carrying out the investigation.

Tensions briefly broke out at Wednesday's protest outside the Justice Palace as some chanted against Hezbollah, while other family members said they wanted the issue to remain above Lebanon’s divisive politics.

“Judge Bitar received threats and after the threat they may recuse him from the case. Why? ... Why is he threatened and why could he be removed?" asked Vicky Atallah, whose relative was killed in the port explosion. "If (this happens) with every judge, who can be brought to account in this country? How can we get our rights as citizens?”

Bitar is the second judge to take on the complicated investigation. A court asked his predecessor to step down earlier this year, following similar legal challenges. Various political leaders now accuse Bitar of politicizing the investigation by going after some officials and not others and ignoring immunity granted to lawmakers and government officials.

The protesters raised banners reading: “we will not forget” and “we will not allow the killers to torpedo the investigation.”

Many of the families have already demanded an internationally led probe, not trusting politicians to allow an independent Lebanese investigation to go ahead in a country long known for a culture of impunity.

Meanwhile, the government held its first meeting since it won a vote of confidence last week. The president and prime minister authorized a committee to resume bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund over Lebanon's worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history. Talks with the IMF were suspended last year.

Information Minister George Kordahi told reporters after the meeting that the committee will be headed by the deputy prime minister and includes the ministers of finance and economy as well as the central bank governor and two experts representing the presidency. No date has been set for the resumption of the talks.

Also on Wednesday, the U.S. and Qatar took coordinated action against a major Hezbollah financial network based in the Arabian Peninsula.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned several individuals as well as a Qatar-based property management company for what it called financing of the Lebanese militant group.

The measures are the latest against Hezbollah, which Washington considers a terrorist group. The U.S. has slapped the group with penalties for years.