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Relatives of victims of Beirut port explosion stand near burning tires during a protest, after a Lebanese court removed the judge leading the investigation into the explosion, outside the Justice Palace in Beirut, Lebanon February 19, 2021. (Reuters)
The families of the Beirut blast victims are warily viewing the appointment of new investigating Judge Tarek Bitar after his predecessor was dismissed over an alleged conflict of interest.
The victims fear that the new judge would return investigations in the August 4 blast back to square one, demanding that “big heads” be held to account if they are found to be implicated in the disaster.
Bitar is unlikely to return to square one, assured former state prosecutor Hatem Madi in remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat.
He said that the new judge should continue from where his predecessor, Fadi Sawwan, stopped.
The first step he will take is review all the documents and testimonies collected by Sawwan.
“We should neither be optimistic or pessimistic with the time he is expected to take in his investigations,” Madi said, urging Bitar to focus all, no just part, of his time on the file.
The former prosecutor predicted that Bitar may encounter new obstacles that would impede his work.
“Any investigator who receives a sensitive file will come under pressure,” he noted, so he should be “professional.”
Moreover, he hoped that Bitar would not commit the same errors as Sawwan, who did not follow legal procedures, especially in dealing with lawmakers and his failure to demand that their immunity be lifted. He also criticized Sawwan’s “selectivity” in summoning people for interrogation.
Sawwan had filed charges against caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil, Youssef Fenianos and Ghazi Zoaiter. His move drew sharp criticism and accusations of being selective because he failed to charge other figures whom he had previously said were involved in the case.
The four officials did not appear for questioning and accused Sawwan of overstepping his powers.
On Thursday, the court of cassation dismissed Sawwan from the investigation upon a request from two former ministers he had levelled charges against. The court cited “legitimate suspicion” over Sawwan’s neutrality, partly because his house was damaged in the blast which devastated much of the capital.
Two hundred people died in the blast when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, stored unsafely for years, detonated at the capital’s port.
The families of the victims do not care about the political wrangling in the case, demanding that the investigation be completed swiftly and justice be achieved.
Spokesman for the families, Ibrahim Hoteit told Asharq Al-Awsat that the families will stand by the new judge when he is right and speak out when he is wrong.
He revealed that the families are seeking to meet with him as they did with Sawwan to deliver a clear message that everyone involved should be brought to justice, even powerful figures.
He must not be swayed or deterred by politics or sectarianism, he urged.
The families were outraged by the decision to remove Sawwan, condemning the ruling elite for politicizing the case.
The August 4 blast, the largest non-nuclear explosion to date, killed two hundred people, injured thousands and destroyed entire neighborhoods.
Documents seen by Reuters showed both the president and prime minister had been warned just over two weeks before the blast that the ammonium nitrate, stored unsafely for years, could destroy the capital if it exploded.
Around 25 people are currently in jail pending investigation over the blast so far, including the Beirut port chief and customs chief. No senior politicians have been held accountable so far.