Beirut blast probe suspended again as judge issues arrest warrant

Lawyers for former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter register new legal complaint against Judge Tarek Bitar.

A massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday, August 5, 2020 flattened much of a port and damaged buildings across Beirut, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky [Hassan Ammar/AP Photo]

Beirut, Lebanon – The probe into the Beirut port explosion has been suspended after two former ministers facing charges lodged a new legal complaint against the lead investigator.

The development came moments after Judge Tarek Bitar issued an arrest warrant for ex-finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil on Tuesday, after he did not show up for questioning.

Shortly afterwards, the judge was notified that lawyers for Khalil and former public works minister Ghazi Zeaiter, who has also been charged, had made a new request to dismiss him from the case, a judicial source told Al Jazeera.

Bitar’s other questioning sessions scheduled this week for Khalil, Zeaiter and former interior minister Nouhad Machnouk have been suspended.

The request on Tuesday was Zeaiter and Khalil’s third attempt to remove Bitar from his position as the head of the probe into the explosion at Beirut’s port last August, which killed more than 200 people, injured about 6,500 and devastated large parts of the city.

In this file photo from 2015, then Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil (centre) attends a meeting of Arab financial institutions on April 7, 2015 in Kuwait City [Yasser al-Zayyat/AFP]

Their initial request filed late last month led to the temporary suspension of the probe. The request was rejected by the Appeals Court on October 4, followed by another rejection from the Cassation Court on Monday.

Machnouk and former Public Works Minister Youssef Finianos previously lodged two separate legal complaints against the judge. Bitar issued an arrest warrant for Finianos in September, but it has not been implemented. The judge had also summoned former Prime Minister Hassan Diab for an interrogation later this month.

The judge has come under huge pressure from groups who have accused him of political bias. On Monday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused Bitar of using “the blood of the victims to serve political interests”, and effectively called for his replacement.

Legal experts have rejected accusations that Bitar has targeted individuals for political reasons. Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer with the Legal Agenda watchdog organisation, told Al Jazeera on Monday that Bitar has charged and pursued officials with “clear documentation and evidence”.

Families of the victims who continue to back the judge have said Lebanese officials are systematically obstructing the investigation.

Bitar has led the Beirut blast probe since February, after his predecessor Judge Fadi Sawan was removed following a similar legal complaint that questioned his impartiality. In their complaint against Sawan, Zeaiter and Khalil said that he could not hold a partial investigation because his home in Beirut was damaged in the blast.

Entire neighbourhoods in Beirut were destroyed in the explosion on August 4, 2020, after a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored unsafely at the port for years, detonated.

An estimated 300,000 people were also left homeless in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded.

No officials have been convicted.

Source: Al Jazeera