Beirut Port blast judge allowed to continue investigation after month delay

Hezbollah could be angered by the decision to allow Judge Tarek Bitar to resume his investigation into the chemical blast.

Damaged Beirut Port area, August 17 (photo credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)
Damaged Beirut Port area, August 17
(photo credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)

The Beirut Court of Appeals has given Tarek Bitar, the judicial investigator in the Beirut Port blast case, the green light to continue his work on Tuesday after he was ordered to halt the investigation over a month ago due to an appeal by former Public Works Minister Youssef Fenianos.

The court also fined Fenianos 800,000 Lebanese pounds ($530). The former minister had been charged and summoned for questioning by Bitar, sparking the appeal which halted the investigation last month.

The decision could anger Hezbollah, as the movement has expressed strong opposition in recent months to Bitar continuing the investigation. The case has been suspended multiple times due to allegations of bias filed by officials who have been charged by the judge.

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

 Supporters of Lebanese Shi'ite groups Hezbollah and Amal and the Christian Marada movement take part in a protest against Tarek Bitar, the lead judge of the port blast investigation, near the Justice Palace in Beirut (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS) Supporters of Lebanese Shi'ite groups Hezbollah and Amal and the Christian Marada movement take part in a protest against Tarek Bitar, the lead judge of the port blast investigation, near the Justice Palace in Beirut (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)

After deadly clashes broke out during a Hezbollah protest against Bitar in October, 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 October, Lebanese MP Ali Hassan Khalil, an ally of Hezbollah, warned that there would be a “political escalation, and perhaps [an escalation] of another kind,” adding that “all possibilities are open,” including taking to the streets.

Also in October, 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 September, Hezbollah security official Wafiq Safa also reportedly threatened Bitar, saying that the movement would remove the judge from his position by force if he continues to displease them.

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.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun expressed concerns for the judiciary in the country on Tuesday, stressing that "everyone must work to protect it and prevent pressure on judges," according to MTV Lebanon.

"Judges and lawyers must be an impenetrable bulwark in the face of corruption and political interference, which obscure facts and impede access to rights," he said.