The High Judicial Council has appointed Judge Tarek Bitar as his successor to Judge Fadi Sawwan as part of the ongoing investigation into the Port of Beirut explosion. The latter had had his name proposed by the Minister of Justice Marie Claude Najem following the refusal to see Judge Samer Younes appointed on the grounds that he was too close to the Free Patriotic Movement.
Judge Tarek Bitar is no stranger, as his name was already proposed last August as part of the same proceeding. At the time, however, he refused to become the investigative judge in the august 4 tragedy, on the pretext of a heavy workload. In the end, Judge Fadi Sawwan was appointed.
In addition, investigating judge Fadi Sawwan was officially informed this morning of the decision of the Criminal Court of Cassation to withdraw the case of the explosion at the Port of Beirut.
As a reminder, the Court of Cassation, seized by two former ministers, former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former Transport Minister Ghazi Zoaiter, whom the magistrate had indicted in connection with this case, had justified his decision on the grounds that the judge whose home in the Asfiehrah district had also been damaged by the explosion , was therefore a stakeholder.
As soon as the decision was announced, many relatives of the families of the victims of this tragedy demonstrated near the Beirut court, in support of the magistrate who was also due to issue an arrest warrant for Youssef Fenianos yesterday, also a former transport minister.
The public prosecutor, Judge Ghassan El-Khoury, referred the court’s decision to the minister of justice in the interim government, Marie-Claude Najem, who is expected to decide what to do next.
The explosion of the port of Beirut
As a reminder, more than 200 people are reported to have died and more than 6,500 people were injured in the explosion that devastated the port of Beirut and much of the Lebanese capital on 4 August. 300,000 people are also reported to be homeless as a result of the explosion.
The trail of an accidental explosion on 4 August 2020 of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate inside a warehouse in beirut harbour, seized in 2014 on a garbage ship, the Moldovan-flagged Rhosus, is currently favoured by the Lebanese authorities. This explosion would be equivalent to that of 600 tons of TNT or an earthquake of 3.3 on the Richter scale.
It is said to have caused a crater 110 metres long and 43 metres deep, a security source said on Sunday (August 9th), citing comments by French experts at the scene.
Speaking in the Columns of the Washington Post on 7 September, the Prosecutor of the Republic, Judge Ghassan Oweidat, revealed that in addition to the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, kerosene, gazoil, 25 tons of fireworks and detonators for use for mines were also present in the same warehouse.
The presence of these products could have maintained the fire and allowed it to reach the temperatures allowing the explosion of ammonium nitrate, some experts point out.
The damage is estimated to be between $10 billion and $15 billion.
The port of Beirut, an area where corruption was widespread
The Lebanese authorities’ refusal to set up an international investigation is linked to the fear that the scale of corruption at Lebanon’s main gate would be involved in almost all Lebanese political parties, including some who are now calling for the investigation, some media sources note, under the guise of a temporary authority to manage the port of Beirut whose appointments were made on official sectarian lines.
Saad Hariri, who has been in question almost because of his closeness to the former director of the port of Beirut Hassan Koraytem for more than 20 years, now denies any direct link with him.
On the spot, operators note that the transit of goods often gives rise to a racketeering. Thus, in order to be able to get goods out of the port of Beirut, important undersides must be frequently paid.
Others note that some shipments are not checked. Goods are also under-billed so as not to pay taxes due to a state in financial crisis.
The investigation into those responsible for the explosion
At present, 33 people are currently under investigation. Among them, the director of the port of Beirut, Hassan Koraytem, as well as the director of the Lebanese customs services Badri Daher, both indicted by the investigating judge Fadi Sawwan, in charge of the investigation.
In total, several security officials and the port of Beirut were arrested.
Some sources point out that the various Lebanese political parties had shared the revenues of the port of Beirut , making it difficult at present to know the responsibilities of each in this explosion.
Several political parties, both majority and opposition, would also like to conclude the investigation quickly, having been involved in various traffickings that take place to or from the port of Beirut. They would like to avoid the degree of involvement of each individual and the security violations necessary to continue their trafficking.
Also, security officials had warned the political authorities several times in recent years, the judicial authorities have not decided on the implementation of the necessary measures of transfer of the cargo.
Sources close to the case also point to the responsibility of several administrations in the port of Beirut, especially since senior officials were aware of the danger posed by the improper storage of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate since 2014.
Although the FBI report could not conclude on the origin of the explosion and suggests an apparently accidental lead based on information provided by the Lebanese authorities, Lebanon remains awaiting the results of parallel investigations conducted by France and Great Britain.
On 10 December, Judge Fadi Sawwan indicted outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab, former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former transport ministers Ghazi Zeiter and Youssef Finianos.
The two former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zoeitar, also close to the president of the chamber Nabih Berri, then refused to go to the judge, believing they enjoy parliamentary immunity. However, this immunity has been the subject of controversy, with the Beirut Bar ruling that it cannot be applied in the context of this case.
The latter then obtain the judge’s dismissal in February 2021, the court of cassation, seized by 2 former ministers, the former minister of finance Ali Hassan Khalil and the former minister of transport Ghazi Zoaiter, having decided that the magistrate had motivated his decision whereas his residence is located in the district of ‘Ashrafieh also damaged by the explosion. He was therefore a stakeholder in this case.
Judge Tarek Bitar was then appointed on February 19 . Its name having already been proposed last August as part of the same procedure. At the time, however, he refused to become the investigative judge in the case of the tragedy of August 4, on the pretext of a heavy workload.
In early June, the new judge indicated that 3 hypotheses were examined after French experts have revealed the content of a preliminary report , that of a human error following a welding work which started a fire, an intentional fire or an explosion following the firing of a rocket.
According to the judge, one of these hypotheses would be ruled out by more than 80% following receipt of the report from the French experts which finally reached Lebanon.
There remain 2 hypotheses which are currently the subject of in-depth studies. Some sources indicate that these would be the hypotheses of an arson or accidental fire.
Beginning of July, Judge Tarek Bitar calls for the lifting of parliamentary immunity of a number of officials including the former finance minister, Ali Hassan Khalil and the former minister of public works, Ghazi Zeaiter, 2 close to the president of the chamber of deputies Nabih Berri as well as the former interior ministers Nouhad Machnouk, all suspected of having been made aware of the presence of dangerous substances. He also requested permission to question a number of former officials and current officials of the security services including the director of general security, General Abbas Ibrahim or the former commander of the Lebanese army, the General Jean Kahwaji.
This Friday July 9, the parliamentary bureau and the parliamentary administration and justice committee have reportedly postponed the decision to lift the immunity of the parliamentarians concerned , asking for more information on this.
The same day, Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi refused to allow the interrogation of General Abbas Ibrahim leading Judge Tarek Bitar to lodge an appeal with the Court of Cassation.
On October 11, 2021, Judge Tarek Bitar issued an arrest warrant for Ali Hassan Khalil after it did not occur in front of him. This arrest warrant will lead to demonstrations in front of the courthouse on October 14, 2021, and the famous incidents of Tayyouneh, the worst sectarian incidents since the end of the civil war between Christians and Shiites. The Amal movement and Hezbollah, co-organizer of the demonstration, will then accuse snipers of the Lebanese Forces of having fired on them.