HomePoliticsAnalysisExplainer: What is happening with the August 4 investigation?

Explainer: What is happening with the August 4 investigation?

With the surprise announcement from Judge Tarek Bitar that he would be continuing his investigation into the August 4 Beirut Port explosion, NOW breaks down where the investigation stands and what to expect going forward.

A family member of one of the victims of the Beirut Port explosion speaks during a protest in front of the Justice Palace in Beirut on February 18, 2021 after Fadi Sawan's removal from the investigation was announced. Photo: Nicholas Frakes, NOW

After a little over a year, Judge Tarek Bitar announced that he would be resuming his investigation into the August 4 Beirut Port explosion.

This announcement came as a surprise to many as his investigation was being held up in legal disputes that were still yet to be ruled on.

According to Bitar, though, a legal precedent allows him to continue his work unimpeded even while the cases against him are still in the courts.

However, almost immediately, the political establishment in Lebanon struck back in an attempt to once again suspend the investigation that has implicated several of them in the explosion that killed over 200 people and injured thousands more.

This has set up a legal and political showdown that, according to Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Aya Majzoub, makes it very “unclear what’s going to happen.”

The thorn in the political establishment

After the Beirut Blast occurred on August 4, 2020, there were immediate calls for an investigation into the tragic incident and how 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate ended up being improperly stored in Hangar 12.

Those in Lebanon had little faith that a serious judge would be appointed to head the investigation. But that all changed when Fadi Sawan was tapped to look into the explosion.

Sawan quickly began calling current and former politicians into questioning, leading these same politicians to file cases against him in the courts, arguing that he was unfit to lead such an investigation.

The Court of Cassations, Lebanon’s highest judicial body, decided to remove Sawan from the investigation.

Soon after Sawan’s removal, Bitar was appointed as the lead investigator and picked up where Sawan left off, calling on these same politicians to come in for questioning.

Once more, the politicians refused to comply and began filing cases against him. However, this time, the courts ruled in Bitar’s favor and continued to do so even after several further attempts to have him removed through the legal process.

This led to Hezbollah and the Amal Movement staging a protest on October 14, 2021 in Beirut that called for Bitar’s removal, an event that led to the deadly Tayouneh clashes.

We’re not really sure what’s going to happen, but all indications point to the fact that the judicial authorities and the security bodies are not going to cooperate Bitar and they are not going to execute his orders and his requests.

Hezbollah and its allies did not stop trying to have Bitar removed and continued to push the narrative that the judge was leading the country down a dangerous path.

But this also did not seem to work, and it was not until December 2021 when a case filed by the politicians being investigated by Bitar finally brought the investigation to a grinding halt.

The judge that was supposed to decide the case was deemed unfit to try the case and was removed. No new judge has been selected to take their place yet.

So, for over a year, the investigation seemed all but dead.

That was until January 23, 2023 when Bitar unexpectedly announced that, under a legal precedent, he would be allowed to resume his work.

Bitar acted quickly, announcing that five of those that had been held in detention essentially since the start of the investigation would be released.

In addition to this, Bitar also charged eight new people, including public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat and Lebanon’s top intelligence official Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim. The others charged were judges Ghassan Khoury and Jad Maalouf, State Security head Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba, Higher Customs Council head Asaad Toufaili, Higher Customs Council member Gracia al-Qazzi and former Prime Minister Hassan Diab..

It did not take long, though, for the political establishment to react to Bitar’s announcements.

Fighting back

In response to Bitar resuming his work, Oueidat, who had been charged by Bitar, stated the following day, January 24, that Bitar was, in fact, not allowed to resume the investigation.

It is unclear if Oueidat, a public prosecutor, has the authority to halt Bitar’s investigation as Bitar is not technically working under the same legal body.

Previously, when the investigation was suspended, it gave the political establishment the ability to deny that they were trying to interfere with the investigation since it was, technically, a matter for the courts to decide. 

“While the investigation was suspended it was a convenient excuse to say that ‘we’re not blocking the investigation. The investigation is suspended due to legal challenges,'” Majzoub stated.

“Now it’s basically a tug of war between Bitar on the one hand and the rest of the establishment on the other,” she added. “We’re not really sure what’s going to happen, but all indications point to the fact that the judicial authorities and the security bodies are not going to cooperate Bitar and they are not going to execute his orders and his requests.”

Now, however, the establishment is backed into a corner. While part of the judiciary is against Bitar, according to Michael Young, a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, there are some within the judiciary who support Bitar and the work that he is doing.

“Bitar clearly does not have the support of part of the judiciary. He does have part of the support of the Higher Judicial Council which is headed by Suhail Aboud,” Young told NOW. “If part of the Council supports him, already there are not enough magistrates in the Higher Judicial Council to hold a quorum.”

Without the judiciary able to agree on the removal of Bitar, the political elite is left with few other options. Lebanon still does not have a president, and Najib Miakti’s government only exists in a caretaker capacity so it also does not have the authority to remove Bitar.

That does not mean that it is impossible for them to try.

Oueidat, on Wednesday, issued an order to have all of those detained in the August 4 investigation released and their passports revoked.

He also issued charges against Bitar for “rebelling against the judiciary,” which could potentially force the investigator to suspend his work until the charges are ruled on by a judge. Even though Ouidat justified his actions by saying that he was trying to “prevent sedition,” this is similar to the tactic used by politicians charged in the investigation to try and have the lead investigator removed from the case. 

Bitar also had a travel ban issued against him and, in a twist of events, was ordered by Oueidat to appear Thursday morning for questioning.

Bitar refused to acknowledge Oueidat’s order, saying that he is “still the investigative judge and I will not step down from this case” and that Oueidat “has no authority to charge me.”

Unless there is a ruling against Bitar or an outright decision saying that his claim of precedence is invalid, Bitar should be able to continue the investigation and issue charges and summons.

However, this is likely to lead nowhere.

A toothless investigation

On his first day back on the job, Bitar charged eight people in the case of the Beirut Blast which would normally mean that they would have to submit to questioning when summoned.

He may continue his investigation, he may continue to issue decisions right and left but if they are not implementable, then how does he progress. The most likely outcome is that this sort of stalemate will continue until some kind of decision can be taken.

If they do not comply, then Bitar could issue an arrest warrant for them so that they would be brought in by the security forces for refusing the order.

The problem with this is that Bitar has no support when it comes to executing these arrest warrants to force those charged to submit to his questioning.

“To implement his decisions, he does need to have a functioning authority that can arrest the people he wants to bring in for questioning,” Young explained. “He’s not really able to bring these people in for questioning because the judicial police are not under his authority. It’s very unlikely that the Interior Ministry will allow the ISF to arrest people. So he doesn’t really have an instrument that would allow him to implement decisions that he’s taking.”

This makes Bitar’s efforts more of a political statement rather than something that may actually have an impact.

Charging officials embarrasses them,  as it suggests that the judge is saying that they had some sort of role in the explosion that devastated the Lebanese capital and upended countless people’s lives.

But even this has its limits.

“He may continue his investigation, he may continue to issue decisions right and left but if they are not implementable, then how does he progress,” Young said. “The most likely outcome is that this sort of stalemate will continue until some kind of decision can be taken.”

In the end, Bitar may continue his work on the Beirut Blast investigation, but it is expected to end up stalled again, forcing the families of the victims to continue going down to the streets to demand justice for their lost loved ones.

Nicholas Frakes is a senior reporter with @NOW_leb. He tweets  @nicfrakesjourno.