The Higher Judicial Council has agreed to a proposal from caretaker Justice Minister Henri Khoury to name an alternate investigator in the Beirut port blast case, sparking political and judicial controversy after the move was seen as illegal and politically motivated.
Dozens of relatives of the victims of the blast protested Wednesday against the decision, calling the move an attempt by the country's political class to prevent justice into one of the world's largest non-nuclear explosions.
The investigation into the blast, which killed 218 people, injured thousands and caused billions of dollars in damage has been blocked since December by Lebanon's political powers. That's after three former Cabinet ministers filed legal challenges against investigative judge Tarek Bitar.
Now, Minister Khoury and the Higher Judicial Council, Lebanon's top judicial body, have decided to name a second judge to release some port and customs officials as well as workers who have been detained without charges since the blast.
"What is happening is an attempt to remove the case from Judge Bitar," Youssef Diab, a Lebanese journalist who covers legal affairs told The Associated Press during the protest outside the office of the justice minister. "By naming a second investigative judge to approve the releases, it means that Judge Bitar has been ripped of his powers."
Many blame the tragedy on the Lebanese government's longtime corruption, but the elite's decades-old lock on power has ensured they are untouchable. The Aug. 4, 2020 explosions occurred when hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, detonated at the port.
It later emerged that the ammonium nitrate had been shipped to Lebanon in 2013 and stored improperly at a port warehouse ever since. Senior political and security officials knew of its presence but did nothing.
Bitar has been the the subject of harsh criticism by Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah called Bitar's investigation a "big mistake" and said it was biased. He asked authorities to remove Bitar.
Bitar is the second judge to take the case. The first judge, Fadi Sawwan, was forced out after complaints of bias by two Cabinet ministers. If the same happens to Bitar, it could be the final blow to the investigation.
Lebanon's factional political leaders, who have divvied up power among themselves for decades, closed ranks to thwart any accountability.
Diab, the journalist, said that Bitar should have been allowed to resume his work to issue the releases himself then continue the investigation.
The 13 MPs of the Change bloc issued a statement calling the move by the justice minister to name a second judge "a fatal blow to the role of investigative judge Tarek Bitar." The 13 legislators vowed not to give up and to use all means available to keep the investigation going.
Bitar charged four former senior government officials with intentional killing and negligence that led to the deaths of dozens of people. He also charged several top security officials in the case.
"Today this is a small part of this ridiculous scenario that started two years ago," said Michael Awad whose 3-year-old granddaughter, Alexandra Naggear, was killed in the blast.
"We are with those people who are innocent inside the prison. But I think also as victims of the families, we are on the top of the list of justice," Awad said. "They should start with us first and then they can proceed with that with whatever they want."