Beirut port blast victims’ families protest against probe’s suspension


Hundreds of outraged Lebanese, mostly relatives of people killed in last year’s Beirut port explosion, protested Wednesday against the suspension of an investigation into the disaster.

Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the probe into Lebanon’s deadliest peacetime disaster, had to suspend his work on Monday after a former minister wanted for questioning filed a complaint that accused him of being biased.

Bitar’s predecessor Fadi Sawan was also removed from the investigation earlier this year after issuing summonses to former ministers and top brass over the explosion.

No-one has yet been held accountable for the August 2020 blast, which killed 219 people and injured 7,000 others.

A fire triggered the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a combustible chemical widely used as agricultural fertiliser that had been stored unsafely in a port warehouse for almost six years.

Senior officials were aware of the material’s existence and the danger it posed but failed to remove, secure or destroy it.

The BBC’s Carine Torbey in Beirut says that for more than a year, relatives of the victims have regularly held rallies to demand justice.

But now, our correspondent adds, they fear that the whole investigation could be compromised.

“If there’s no justice, then there’s no country,” Hiam Bekaai, whose son Ahmad was killed in the explosion, told the BBC.

Lebanon’s top court removed the first lead judge, Sawan, earlier this year after he charged with negligence the prime minster at the time of the explosion, Hassan Diab, former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, and former public works ministers Youssef Finyanus and Ghazi Zaiter.

The four men denied any wrongdoing and refused to be questioned as suspects, accusing the judge of overstepping his powers.

Now, Judge Bitar is facing a similar complaint from another politician wanted for questioning on suspicion of negligence, former interior minister Nohad Machnouk, and must stop his work until the court rules on it.

Victims’ relatives allege that powerful politicians are obstructing justice and intimidating Judge Bitar.

So far, our correspondent says, he has not been able to interrogate any politician in a case that increasingly seems to polarise public opinion in a country with a long history of impunity. (Source: BBC)