BEIRUT — The judge investigating the massive 2020 Beirut port explosion returned to work Monday after a nearly 13-month hiatus, ordering the release of some detainees and announcing plans to indict others, including two top generals, court officials said.
Judge Tarek Bitar’s work has been blocked since December 2021 pending the Court of Cassation’s ruling after three former Cabinet ministers filed a lawsuit against him. The court is the highest in the land.
Despite no decision from the court, Bitar resumed the case on Monday based on the legal justification he provided, said court officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. They don’t detail.
Bitar did not respond to calls from The Associated Press for comment.
The August 4, 2020 disaster occurred when hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, an ingredient used in fertilizer, was detonated in Beirut’s port killing more than 200 people, injuring more than 6,000 and damaging large parts of Beirut. The explosion is considered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.
It later emerged that the ammonium nitrate had been shipped to Lebanon in 2013 and had been improperly stored in the port warehouse ever since. Senior political and security officials were aware of its existence but did nothing about it.
Court officials said Bitar decided to release five people who had been detained for more than two years. They include former customs chief Shafeek Merhi; Sami Hussein, head of port operations at the time of the explosion, and a Syrian worker. Twelve people will remain in custody, including the head of the port authority and the head of Lebanese customs at the time of the explosion.
Bitar’s move to order the release of some of the 17 people who had been detained since the explosion came days after protests by family members in Beirut demanding all 17 people be freed.
“What Bitar did today is he committed a grave violation of international law,” said Celine Atallah, custody lawyer for Badri Daher, who was head of customs at the time of the blast. “If he believes he has the authority to release some of the prisoners, that means he has and must release the seventeen people he is being held.
“Under the international conventions that Lebanon ratifies and human rights law, their detention is against the law. I made him responsible that he was holding those seventeen people hostage,” Atallah, a Lebanese American, told The AP.
Officials said Bitar was expected to indict eight people, including top intelligence officials Major General Abbas Ibrahim and Major General Tony Lilina. Bitar previously charged three former ministers who several times refused to appear for questioning and filed lawsuits to stop investigations.
Paul Naggear, a survivor of the devastating explosion who lost his 3-year-old daughter, Alexandra, said the news was unexpected.
“Obviously it’s very positive. This is all we asked for,” he told the AP. “We are happy with the decision (to revive the investigation), whether they (the authorities) stop it immediately or not.”
Naggear is among a handful of blast victim relatives who have campaigned for Bitar and advocated a robust investigation. In recent weeks, they have staged more frequent protests outside the Palace of Justice and Parliament buildings in Beirut calling for the investigation to proceed.
Several politicians challenged Bitar in court, accusing him of violating the constitution or showing bias. There were also reports of threats being made against judges and the government vowing by the end of 2021 to improve its security.
Bitar also received challenges from several family members of the victims of the explosion, including Ibrahim Hoteit who lost his younger brother in the explosion. Hoteit said Bitar was an obstacle to finding the truth in the case.
Bitar has been the target of fierce criticism by the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah called the Bitar investigation a “big mistake” and said it was biased. He asked the authorities to remove Bitar.
Bitar is the second judge to handle the case. The first judge, Fadi Sawwan, was forced out after complaints of bias from two Cabinet ministers. If the same thing happens to Bitar, it could be the final straw for the investigation.