Families protest suspension of Lebanon blast probe
Beirut (AFP) –
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 blast hampered by political interference.
Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the probe into Lebanon's deadliest peacetime disaster, had to suspend his work on Monday after what the families and human rights groups said was another blatant case of political obstruction.
Around 200 protesters -- not even one demonstrator for each person killed by the blast -- gathered at the palace of justice in Beirut under close surveillance from a heavy police deployment.
"You won't kill us twice," read a large banner that they unfurled.
Carrying portraits of their lost relatives and placards calling for justice, the protesters voiced their support for Bitar, whose summonses targeting senior officials have earned him a series of thinly veiled threats.
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.
"We have been suffering for 13 months from the interference of politicians and sectarian leaders in the investigation," said Rima al-Zahid, whose brother was a port employee and died in the blast.
"When I heard that the investigation was halted, I felt that we were being betrayed again, and that they were killing us a second time," she added, breaking into tears as she spoke.
- 'Second crime' -
The August 4, 2020 explosion of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser at a port warehouse caused one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.
The shockwave was felt as far away as Cyprus, entire swathes of Beirut were devastated, 215 people were killed and thousands wounded, some of them several kilometres (miles) from the blast site.
Stephanie Ghougassian, who lost her friend Gaia Fodoulian in the blast, said the suspension of the probe constituted a "second crime".
"I don't want to believe that my friend died for nothing... we will certainly achieve justice one way or another," she told AFP during the protest.
Since taking on the case five months ago, Bitar has summoned political and security officials for questioning, including former premier Hassan Diab, the country's top security chiefs and several ex-ministers -- all of whom are suspected of negligence leading to the tragedy.
Lebanon's bitterly divided political leaders have united in their criticism of Bitar, accusing him of political bias.
Ex-interior minister Nohad Machnouk, who is among a raft of top officials summoned by the investigator, filed a court request for his removal last week.
Former public works and transportation minister Youssef Fenianos, who was hit with an arrest warrant this month for failing to show up for interrogation, also requested a replacement.
An official with the powerful Shiite Hezbollah movement has reportedly threatened Bitar over his handling of the investigation.
"It's forbidden for a judge to be threatened inside the Justice Palace," said William Noun, whose firefighter brother died while trying to douse the fire that led to the explosion. "We want the truth," he said during the rally.
- 'A storm' -
Lebanese authorities have repeatedly refused growing calls by rights groups and victim's relatives demanding an impartial international investigation into the explosion.
A French foreign ministry spokesperson on Wednesday said Paris "regrets the suspension" of the probe and urged the Lebanese judiciary to work "in total transparency, and without any political interference" so that investigations could proceed.
Prior to the suspension, Bitar had scheduled a series of sessions this week to interrogate top political and security officials, which led many to question the timing of the latest interruption.
Yousra Abu Saleh, who lost her son to the port explosion, said the news of the investigation's suspension "hit us like a storm".
"We don't want a repeat of what happened with judge Fadi Sawan," she said, holding a portrait of her son as tears rolled down her face.
"All we want is justice."
© 2021 AFP