Lebanon court rejects request to remove blast investigator

Beirut (AFP) –

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A Lebanese court Monday turned down a request to replace the judge leading investigations into last year's port blast following a week-long suspension that reignited accusations of political interference.

Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the probe into Lebanon's deadliest peacetime disaster, had to suspend his work last Monday after an ex-minister suspected of negligence leading to the tragedy asked a Beirut court to replace him.

Two other former ministers also suspected of negligence filed a similar request only days later.

The suspension of the probe drew widespread criticism from rights groups and relatives of blast victims against political leaders who had already removed a first judge, Fadi Sawan, in February for summoning senior officials.

On Monday, "the appeals court of Beirut, headed by Judge Nassib Elia, rejected the law suits filed" by ex-ministers Nohad Machnouk, Ali Hasan Khalil and Ghazi Zaiter, all of whom are also lawmakers, a court official told AFP.

"The court views that it does not have the prerogatives to rule over this matter," the official added.

The ruling, effective immediately, allows Bitar to "resume investigations this very moment", according to the court official.

Bitar is expected to summon the three lawmakers before parliament goes back into session on October 19, after-which they will benefit from political immunity, he said.

The August 4, 2020 monster blast 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.

Lebanese authorities have repeatedly rejected an international investigation while also hampering a local probe that has yet to identify a single culprit.

Last month, parliament turned down a request by Bitar to interrogate the three lawmakers, arguing that parliamentary officials could only be questioned by a special court.

The United Nations and France both pressed Lebanon to proceed with transparent investigations after the probe was suspended last week.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused authorities of brazen obstruction of justice and callous disregard of victims' families.

The relatives staged a protest on Wednesday warning authorities against a repeat of what happened with Bitar's predecessor Sawan.