The probe in the Beirut blast has entered a critical phase after investigating Judge Tarek Bitar crossed perceived “red Lines” when he summoned former Prime Minister Hassan Diab and security and military officials for questioning.
Bitar’s actions have reportedly angered Hezbollah, which warned him against going through with this line of investigation.
Lebanese journalist Edmond Sassine revealed in a tweet that Bitar was threatened by Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit chief Wafiq Safa.
The revelation sparked widespread political and legal debate in Lebanon on whether Safa had indeed threatened the judge. If true, it could hamper Bitar’s work. The judge had notably not showed up to office on Tuesday.
Judicial sources did not confirm or deny the threat.
General Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oueidat ordered Bitar to prepare a report about him allegedly receiving the threat.
Safa had paid a visit on Monday to the Beirut Justice Palace where he met with head of the Supreme Judicial Council Judge Suhail Abboud and Oueidat to deliver his threat, revealed informed sources.
Parliamentary sources told Asharq Al-Awsat, however, that Safa’s meetings did not address the Beirut port probe or Bitar’s procedures against politicians who are allied to Hezbollah.
Rather, Safa discussed the confiscation over the weekend of a truck that was loaded with over 20 tons of ammonium nitrate. The truck was seized in a town in the Bekaa Valley that is a stronghold of the party.
The Beirut port blast on August 4, 2020 was caused by the detonation of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers, which had been improperly stored at the facility for years with the knowledge of senior officials, ministers and even the president. Some 214 people were killed and over 6,000 injured, while neighborhoods were left devastated.
Safa’s alleged threat to Bitar outraged the families of the blast victims, who announced they would “stand guard under the judge’s house”. They demanded that the judiciary be respected and justice be allowed to take its course.
Bitar had summoned former Interior Minister Nouhad Mashnouq, former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former Transportation and Public Works Minister Ghazi Zoaiter for interrogation. He had charged them with criminal negligence.
Mashnouq is scheduled to appear before the judge on September 30 and Khalil and Zoaiter on October 1.
The officials had previously used their parliamentary immunity to avoid the summons. The formation of a new government and its earning of parliament’s vote of confidence has rendered the immunities void. Lebanese law states that within the period starting from parliament’s vote of confidence until the date its regular session begins, MPs no longer enjoy the protection of parliamentary immunity.
The government received the vote of confidence this week and parliament’s regular session will begin on October 19.