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Court Rejects Suits over Beirut Blast by Former PM, Ministers

Court Rejects Suits over Beirut Blast by Former PM, Ministers

Thursday, 25 November, 2021 - 16:15
FILE - A monument that represents justice stands in front of towering grain silos that were gutted in the massive August 2020 explosion at the port that killed more than 216 people and wounded over 6,000, in Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

A top Lebanese court Thursday rejected lawsuits filed by a former prime minister and three ex-ministers seeking to sue the state over the conduct of the judge probing the deadly August 2020 Beirut blast, a senior judicial source told Reuters.

The suits, filed over the past month, had paused Judge Tarek Bitar's investigation but he still remains unable to proceed due to a separate judicial ruling that is still pending, lawyer Nizar Saghieh of watchdog group Legal Agenda told Reuters.

The general assembly of Lebanon's Court of Cassation rejected the suits filed by former Prime Minister Hassan Diab and former ministers Nohad Machnouk, Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hasan Khalil that alleged "grave mistakes," in the probe.

All have been charged in connection with the blast but have denied any wrongdoing and have refused to be interrogated by Bitar, arguing he does not have the authority to prosecute them.

At the heart of the legal quagmire is criticism from senior Lebanese officials who were in charge when the nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers, was stored in the Port of Beirut and kept there for years. Bitar has summoned a dozen senior officials, charging some with criminal negligence and homicide with probable intent.

On Aug. 4, 2020, the nitrate ignited after a massive fire at the port. The explosion killed over 216 people and injured over 6,000. Parts of Beirut were badly damaged.

Bitar does not give public statements in line with regulations for judges.

Families of Beirut blast victims who have visited Bitar say he told them he would continue to seek to interrogate top officials until he was removed from the case.

The families rallied Thursday outside Lebanon’s top court against what they say are intentional obstructions to the probe of the devastating blast. They said their message to authorities was: “We are sick of waiting.”

According to The Associated Press, the families said in a statement that the repeated obstructions of the probe was “surprising and shameful.”

“The defendants succeeded in drowning the case in a web of politics and judicial complexities," George Bezdjian, a spokesperson for the families, read from the statement. Bezdjian's daughter Jessica, a nurse, was killed in the explosion.

Bitar's investigation has faced at least 15 lawsuits, each questioning the course of the probe, his impartiality and authority. Most lawsuits were shot down by lower courts.

The probe has also paralyzed the government, after ministers allied with Hezbollah demanded the Cabinet respond to calls for Bitar’s removal.

The families of the blast victims called on the judiciary to allow the probe to resume. To those obstructing the probe, they said: “History will have no mercy on you.”

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