Lebanese politicians warn of 'sedition' amid judicial crisis

Lebanon's chief prosecutor has charged the judicial investigator of the Beirut Port blast case with "rebelling against the judiciary."

 Army soldiers are deployed after gunfire erupted in Beirut, Lebanon October 14, 2021. (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
Army soldiers are deployed after gunfire erupted in Beirut, Lebanon October 14, 2021.
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)

Lebanese politicians this week warned of "civil war," "sedition" and "serious repercussions" amid a conflict between the country's chief public prosecutor Ghassan Oweidat and Tarek Bitar, the judicial investigator on the Beirut port blast case.

On Wednesday, Oweidat charged Bitar with "rebelling against the judiciary," after the investigator charged a number of officials and former officials in connection with the 2020 explosion.

Oweidat additionally decided to prevent Bitar from leaving the country and summoned him to appear before him. The public prosecutor also ordered the release of all 17 suspects who were detained in the case.

On Tuesday, Bitar decided to resume the investigation into the blast, 13 months after it was halted due to a lawsuit by ex-ministers who Bitar had summoned for questioning in December 2021. The judiciary has been unable to discuss the lawsuit as the judicial assembly which would do so is missing a quorum as caretaker finance minister Youssef Khalil, who is close with suspects in the case, has blocked appointments to the assembly.

Bitar claimed that the judicial proceedings against him were "not binding," as the decision to appoint a judicial investigator lies in the hands of the justice minister and an attempt by the judiciary to remove him on its own would be an encroachment on the executive branch, according to the Lebanese newspaper L'Orient Le Jour.

 Relatives of victims of Beirut port explosion burn tires during a protest, after a Lebanese court removed the judge leading the investigation into the explosion, outside the Justice Palace in Beirut, Lebanon February 19, 2021 (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS) Relatives of victims of Beirut port explosion burn tires during a protest, after a Lebanese court removed the judge leading the investigation into the explosion, outside the Justice Palace in Beirut, Lebanon February 19, 2021 (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)

The judicial investigator released five detainees in the case, although he kept a travel ban on them, and initiated proceedings against eight individuals. According to L'Orient Le Jour, the new suspects include General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim, State Security head Tony Saliba, former prime minister Hassan Diab and public prosecutor Oweidat.

On Thursday afternoon, Lebanon's Supreme Judicial Council will meet to consider appointing a judge to investigate Bitar based on the charges placed against him by Oweidat, according to LBCI TV. The judges will also reportedly consider appointing a new judicial investigator to the Beirut Port case.

The Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Manar TV reported that "important decisions" will be issued on the matter and that the council will insist on the appointment of a judge to investigate Bitar and will threaten an "escalation" if refused.

The MTV Lebanon news channel reported that the public prosecutor's office has indicated that it will ignore Bitar's decisions.

Despite the uproar, Bitar has insisted that he will remain on the case until indictments are issued against the charged suspects, stating "I will issue [the indictments] whether I am in my office, my home or in confinement."

Relatives of the victims of the port explosion gathered in front of Oweidat's home on Wednesday to protest his actions against Bitar.

The families of the victims, members of parliament and social activists intend to protest in front of the Palace of Justice in Beirut on Thursday as the Supreme Judicial Council discusses how it will proceed against Bitar. 

Lebanese politicians warn of unrest, 'civil war'

Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati warned of "serious repercussions" if the split in the judiciary is not resolved.

The Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen TV interviewed former environment minister Wiam Wahhab - a politician allied with Hezbollah - who claimed that Bitar had "carried out a coup" and was attempting to "spark a civil war."

Ibrahim Al Moussawi, an MP from Hezbollah said Oweidat's decisions were "a step in the right direction."

Elias Stephan, a member of the Christian Lebanese Forces, tweeted on Wednesday that "The time for settlements is over and we have begun the stage of real confrontation."

The Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper warned that social tensions were rising and could lead to "sedition," adding that security services in the country were treating the risk of sedition as an "imminent danger" and had raised their alert level.

One security source told Al-Akhbar that security services are concerned about "strife" between Christians and Shi'ites and the possibility of political assassinations which could affect "the stability of the country.

Judicial clash comes as Lebanon's economic, political crises escalate

The conflict in Lebanon's judiciary comes as the country's economic crisis reaches new heights, with the Lebanese lira reaching a record low of 56,000 liras per dollar this week.

Due to the new drop in the exchange rate, gas stations around Lebanon closed on Wednesday, citing losses due to the high prices of the dollar.

The Lebanese government is also still without a president after nearly three months of failed attempts by the parliament to elect a new president after former president Michel Aoun ended his term in October.

Hezbollah's history with Bitar

In late 2021, the Hezbollah terrorist movement expressed strong opposition to Bitar's leading of the investigation. The investigation was suspended multiple times due to allegations of bias filed by officials who have been charged by the judge.

Hezbollah has been blamed for being at least partially responsible for the negligent handling of the weapons-grade ammonium nitrate stored at the port which led to the blast. The owner of the vessel which brought the chemicals to Beirut has been accused of dealing with Hezbollah and the Syrian government, with an FBI probe finding that most of the chemicals had been siphoned away from the port before the time of the blast.

Hezbollah also has a strong hold over Lebanon’s ports, with many relevant officials coming from either the group or its allies. Even if the movement did not purposefully import the ammonium nitrate, it or its allies may still be found responsible for the explosion due to negligence.

Both implied and explicit threats were made by Hezbollah and its allies against Bitar, claiming that the investigation is being influenced by foreign and political pressure.

In October 2021, sources from Hezbollah and the Marada movement told the Lebanese Al-Jadeed TV news that Bitar was preparing to accuse Hezbollah directly of responsibility for the explosion. The sources added that if he is not removed, they will leave the government.

In October 2021, a deadly firefight broke out in Beirut after shots were fired during a protest by Hezbollah supporters against Bitar. After the clashes, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah claimed that the movement had been targeted since the first moments after the explosion and warned that it would not remain silent.

In September 2021, Hezbollah security official Wafiq Safa reportedly threatened to remove Bitar "by force" if the judge did not abandon the port blast case.

Reuters contributed to this report.