Judges in Beirut Explosion Investigation Face Hezbollah Threat

The investigation into last year’s big explosion in Beirut has been slow because of what observers say was interference by the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group. Lebanese judge Tarek Bitar has survived two attempts to sack him. The most recent was Monday when the court dismissed the complaint against Bitar, but Hezbollah continued to threaten the judge and his investigation.

Analysts say a real national unity movement is needed to confront the obstacles posed by Hezbollah, as well as to get Lebanon on track to embark on needed economic and political reforms.

Lebanese judge Tarek Bitar has faced resistance from powerful Lebanese factions seeking to halt his investigation into the explosion in Beirut port, August 4, 2020, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Reports say large quantities of ammonium nitrate – commonly used to make fertilizer or bombs – have been left unsafely stored in harbor warehouses for years.

Three former ministers were accused in the case. They are a former interior minister, a former finance minister and a former transport minister, all three of whom have ties to Hezbollah, which plays an important role in the constellation of the Lebanese government. They tried to get Bitar out of the investigation because he tried to question the three former ministers. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah accused Bitar of being “politicised,” despite his perceived neutral position. Hezbollah security chief Wafiq Safa warned the judge that if Hezbollah did not like his performance as law enforcement, then he would be removed.

If that happens, Bitar will be the second judge to be dismissed.

Activists and families of victims of the Beirut explosion protest in Beirut, Lebanon September 29, 2021 (photo: doc).

Activists and families of victims of the Beirut explosion protest in Beirut, Lebanon September 29, 2021 (photo: doc).

Political analyst Dania Koleilat Khatib of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University in Beirut told Mouab why she believes Hezbollah is threatening Bitar.

“Hezbollah always tries to intimidate him because maybe he will reveal something they want to not reveal. That’s why they tried to block it. Do they store the nitrate? Don’t they keep it? The fact that they told him to stop and messaged him shows that they really feel threatened by the investigation.”

Another former interior minister, Ahmed Fatfat, told Saudi daily Arab News that Hezbollah’s actions showed fear of the developments.

“Hezbollah accuses all those who disagree with it of being traitors, while the group admits to having received orders and money from Iran,” Fatfat said. He said that unless a real national front was formed against the party, Lebanon would fall under Iranian occupation.

Many Lebanese, especially the families of the more than 200 blast victims, are furious that no senior official has been held accountable for the tragedy after more than a year.

Analyst Dania Koleilat Khatib added, “Bitar’s position is important. The Lebanese people are so demoralized. When I met the parents of the people who died (in the explosion) August 4, one spoke on their behalf he said although ‘we don’t believe in the government, the judiciary has shown us that despite everything, justice still exists’ and this is very important . This is where the international community, the European Union, the United States, must support people like Bitar. It must be ensured that he will not succumb to political pressure and must send that very strong message not only to Hezbollah, but to anyone else that if anyone touches him, they will be threatened with very harsh punishments.”

The investigation has been the target of international criticism.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused Lebanese authorities of obstructing justice and neglecting the families of the victims with a protracted investigation. [lt/ka]

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