More than two years since the massive explosion that leveled Beirut’s port and horrified the world, a bitter standoff has erupted in which leading Lebanese judges have filed charges against each other and all suspects in the stalled investigation have been freed.
The surprise moves come after Tarek Bitar, the judge in charge of the blast investigation, suddenly resumed his job. The investigation was stalled for more than a year, opposed by the country’s political factions, which showed no interest in delivering justice for the 202 people killed and hundreds injured.
Bitar’s first act was to indict Lebanon’s top prosecutor, two intelligence chiefs and a number of other officials for what amounted to obstruction of justice. The move was unprecedented in Lebanon, where senior officials have been largely untouchable in the years since the civil war and the country’s leaders are even more out of touch.
The response of the chief prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, was swift. On Wednesday, he ordered the release of all suspects detained since the explosion – a range of officials who worked at the port, well below the political masters who carved it into fiefdoms that have enriched every major faction in Lebanon.
The events horrified family members of the people killed in the explosion – one of the largest non-nuclear explosions – who have unsuccessfully sought justice, and added fuel to claims that an internal investigation could never shed light on how the stockpile of ammonium nitrate arrived at the port or bring those responsible to justice. .
Bitar’s tactics seem to have shifted from cutting off witnesses to indicting the entire system, which acted as a protectorate for the interests of stakeholders, security officials, the military, political groups and the powerful non-state actor, Hezbollah, which operated against Bitar. For some Lebanese, the symbolism remains worthwhile, even in the absence of a path to true justice.
“This country is broken and this is definitive proof,” said Sharbel Aboud, a relative of one resident who was injured near the port. “Now the judges will argue with each other and nothing will happen.” In what other country would we be so far from justice at this point?”
“Without any local political support, Bitar is challenging an untouchable political class for its role in the port explosion,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, director of communications at the Carnegie Middle East Center, which analyzes political, socioeconomic and security issues in the Middle East and North Africa. “His challenge could inspire others and further embarrass Hezbollah, which is spearheading the counterattack.” Although Bitar’s move will not lead to justice, the indictment of high-ranking officials around the world has clear implications.
Others are not so sure. “It doesn’t change anything,” said Miriam Dawood, a resident of Beirut. “You can’t arrest intelligence chiefs and judges here.” This is just a kick in the ribs. It has no impact and is a sign that Bitar has nowhere to go. Pravda and Lebanon are doomed to alienation.”