For over a year and a half, Judge Tarek Bitar has been stuck in place, unable to work on an investigation that, for many in Lebanon, is possibly the biggest case to come across his desk.
Today marks three years since the Beirut Port exploded on August 4, 2020, killing over 200 people and injuring thousands of others.
In the aftermath of the explosion, the then-interior minister, Mohammed Fahmi, made the bold claim that anyone who was found to be responsible for the explosion would not only be held accountable for their crimes against the people of Beirut, but it would happen in only a matter of days.
“The investigation of the port explosion will be transparent, take 5 days, and any officials involved will be held accountable,” he stated at the time.
While Lebanon does not have a good track record when it comes to carrying out justice – much less swiftly – Fahmi’s assuredness gave many hope that this time would be different. Surely, given the magnitude of the crime, the investigation would actually hold people to account for all of the lives lost and affected in the explosion.
However, three years after the blast devastated the Lebanese capital in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, not only has no one been brought to justice, officials have actively fought the investigation since it began, eventually bringing it to a grinding halt in December 2021.
Despite Bitar’s best efforts to continue the investigation, under the current circumstances, there is little that he can do, even as people’s wounds begin to heal and they try to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
The investigation over the years
Bitar was not the first judge to be assigned to the case.
First, there was public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat but he quickly had to recuse himself from the case. His brother-in-law, the former public works minister Ghazi Zeaiter, was implicated in the explosion, causing a conflict of interest.
Sawan was quick to charge current and former politicians for their alleged involvement but was met with resistance as these same politicians filed lawsuits against him. In the end, the Court of Cassations, Lebanon’s highest legal authority, ruled that Sawan had a conflict of interest in heading the investigation since his home was damaged in the explosion and had him removed from the case.
To keep the investigation going, Bitar was appointed to lead the case. Like his predecessor, Bitar made it clear that he was running a real investigation and he expected results. Bitar picked up where Sawan left off, but was also met by fierce opposition.
It’s a way to attack the investigation but without using violence. It’s not their fault that the judges went into retirement but they just did not nominate anyone else. It’s a very soft way of blocking the investigation.
The politicians hid behind immunity, arguing that they could not be questioned or charged because they are protected under the law due to their positions in the government, and, like before, filed lawsuits against Bitar to try and get him removed.
However, this time the court ruled in Bitar’s favor and continued to do so no matter how many lawsuits were filed against him.
This culminated in a protest by supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. Two of those accused at the time, Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil are both members of the Amal Movement, which is headed by Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, and, while not directly implicated in the explosion, Hezbollah had a vested interest in ensuring that its allies did not take any blame for the devastating explosion.
The October 14, 2021 protest quickly turned violent as some of the worst clashes in the Lebanese capital in recent memory took place in Tayyouneh, along the Chiyeh-Ain el-Remmaneh border.
Still, the investigation continued until December 2021, when lawsuits were once again filed against Bitar, but this time was different. Judges at the Court of Cassations had retired, preventing the court from having a quorum that could rule on the suits.
Instead of appointing replacements, the politicians simply did nothing, ensuring that Bitar would not be able to continue the investigation.
“It’s a way to attack the investigation but without using violence,” Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer and researcher with the Legal Agenda, a judicial watchdog organization, told NOW. “It’s not their fault that the judges went into retirement but they just did not nominate anyone else. It’s a very soft way of blocking the investigation.”
According to Frangieh, the issues surrounding the lawsuits could easily be remedied if Parliament were to simply pass two amendments that have already been submitted.
“All it needs to say is that the lawsuits to recuse a judge do not automatically suspend the investigation; they only suspend the investigation if the court rules that they are acceptable because they are based on valid reasons,” she explained.
The problem is that there is no political will to do such a thing, as the politicians have been opposed to a serious investigation from the start and, doing so. would permit Bitar to continue his work.
The amendments submitted to Parliament, Frangieh says, have significant support amongst MPs and, when they were submitted, they were marked as urgent. This means that, technically, they should be taken up on the first parliamentary session following their submission.
Parliament is not meeting, however, and there is opposition amongst politicians when it comes to taking on business other than trying to elect a president.
“The Constitutional Court in its latest decision clearly said that Parliament has the right to legislate even if there is no president and this was the first time it said this. It is a big issue that is always raised at the political level,” the lawyer said.
This ruling, however, has been largely ignored by politicians who continue to argue that Parliament is forbidden from taking on other business besides electing a president.
On top of that, members of the country’s political elite have been taking illegal measures to ensure the suspension of the investigation.
On January 23, 2023, Bitar surprised everyone in Lebanon by announcing that he had found a legal loophole that would allow him to continue the investigation.
Bitar wasted no time and charged public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, Lebanon’s former top intelligence official Major General Abbas Ibrahim (ret.), judgers Ghassan Khoury and Jad Maalouf, State Security head Major General Tony Saliba, Higher Customs Council head Asaad Toufaili, Higher Customs Council member Gracia al-Qazzi, and former Prime Minister Hassan Diab for their part in the explosion.
Oueidat, though, was also quick to act and issued a ruling that Bitar had no right to continue the investigation and charged him with “rebelling against the judiciary.”
For Frangieh, it was clear that Oueidat had overstepped from what his position actually allowed.
“What Oueidat did was completely illegal because, as a prosecutor, he doesn’t have the right to do that and because he was recused from the case,” she stated, adding that it was Oueidat, and not Bitar, who had been the one to rebel against the judiciary.
Since January, Bitar has not made any more attempts at resuming the investigation and has been forced to wait on the ruling in his cases before he can once against restart his work.
“They found a way to abuse the current laws and the politicians have taken the opportunity to suspend all of justice because not nominating judges to the general assembly of the Court of Cassations does not only affect the blast investigation,” Frangieh explained. “It also affects other cases. The cases against banks, the case against Riad Salameh. So, today, anyone accused who does not want a judge to investigate them can simply file a lawsuit against that judge and then the investigation would stop and there is no court to rule on that lawsuit.”
Even if Bitar is able to begin calling people in for questioning once again, and charging them, there are few tools that are available to him on the state level due to the steep opposition that he is facing from the political class.
“He doesn’t have any means to act. The Minister of Interior, the prosecution, security forces, the government and the Parliament are all acting against him,” Frangieh stated. “A judge cannot act if other powers will not collaborate with them. How is he going to notify people that they have a hearing? He needs the security forces. The Minister of Interior does not allow any of the security forces to notify papers issued by Bitar. The prosecutor even ordered all security agencies not to execute any decision ordered by Bitar.”
Michael Young, a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, is not surprised by the lengths to which the politicians are going to try to put an end to the investigation.
“These people have essentially robbed the country; they aren’t going to be ashamed that an investigation doesn’t go through,” he told NOW.
A long fight ahead
Practically since the explosion occurred on August 4, many Lebanese have remained active in trying to ensure that people are brought to justice for their crimes.
Some of the most vocal opponents to the politicians’ efforts to put an end to the investigation have been the family members of the victims.
If [the investigation] is not dead, then it is clinically dead which is exactly what the political class wants. The last thing that the politicians in this country want is the idea of an independent magistrate. They don’t want judges in the country to be independent from political control.
The group has consistently held demonstrations in front of the skeletal remains of the silos in Beirut’s port as well as the Ministry of Justice in Beirut, holding pictures of their lost loved ones high so that no one can forget the faces of the lives lost that day.
But the politicians are counting on their ability to outlast them.
“The longer it takes to come out with some kind of an investigation or judgment, the longer the time that everyone has gotten used to the idea that nothing will come out. This is the game that they’re playing. This is the game that they play all the time,” Young stated.
Because of this, activists are starting to reevaluate their strategies into a fight that is likely to take place over the long term.
“There is always a way to mark the investigation as an important milestone that we should return to,” Karim Safieddine, a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh focusing on social movements and former member of the activist Mada Network, told NOW. “Eventually, this is going to turn into a continuous cause rather than something that ought to be achieved at the moment. This is because the balance of power is not in our interest and not in our direction.”
Safieddine argued that protesting in the streets on commemorative anniversaries is not enough, and that some are looking to speak with international organizations to try and achieve change.
How much this could actually achieve is up for debate.
The possibility of an international investigation into the explosion is not something people should count on, Young argued, as the Lebanese state would not cooperate with any investigation and the case would eventually need to be tried, most likely in Lebanon, which would run into the same issues that the current investigation is already facing.
Frangieh, on the other hand, believes that an international fact-finding mission by the UN Human Rights Council could prove beneficial for the national investigation conducted by the Lebanese judiciary by pressuring Lebanese authorities to cooperate and providing it with more evidence and information.
This would likely still run into the same problem of political opposition in Lebanon that have ensured the prolonged suspension of the investigation.
“If [the investigation] is not dead, then it is clinically dead which is exactly what the political class wants. The last thing that the politicians in this country want is the idea of an independent magistrate. They don’t want judges in the country to be independent from political control,” Young said.
As people prepare to descend on Beirut for the third anniversary of the explosion and to commemorate all of the lives lost, even though the chances of finding justice are becoming increasingly slim, they will make sure that no one will forget what happened that day.