(AFP) — The Lebanese judge leading an investigation into last year's devastating Beirut port blast was forced to suspend his work Tuesday after what human rights groups condemned as an attempt by politicians to evade justice.
It is the second time that Judge Tarek Bitar has had to suspend the probe in the face of lawsuits filed by former ministers he had summoned on suspicion of negligence, and it comes amid growing calls from top officials, including Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah, for him to be replaced.
Bitar's predecessor, Fadi Sawan, was forced to suspend his probe for the same reason before he was finally removed in February in a move widely condemned as political interference.
Human rights groups and relatives of blast victims fear the latest suspension is a prelude to Bitar's removal, which would further derail the official inquiry into the country's worst peacetime tragedy.
Speaking to AFP on Tuesday, a court official said Bitar had been forced to pause the probe pending a ruling by the Court of Cassation on a lawsuit filed by former ministers Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hasan Khalil, both of whom Bitar had summoned for interrogation this week.
– ‘Parody’ –
Shortly before he was notified of the latest lawsuit, Bitar had issued an arrest warrant against Khalil, a former finance minister and member of the Hezbollah-allied Amal movement led by parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a court official said.
The warrant was issued after Khalil failed to show up for questioning on Tuesday, with his attorney appearing in his place to request more time to mount a defence, the court official added.
The arrest warrant is the second to be issued by Bitar after one last month against former public works and transport minister Youssef Fenianos, who also failed to attend a hearing.
On Tuesday evening in an interview with Al-Mayadeen television, Khalil threatened a "political escalation, perhaps of a different kind", if the course of the investigation "was not rectified".
He warned against resorting "to the street".
Bitar was also scheduled to question Zeaiter, a former public works minister, and former interior minister Nohad Machnouk within the next 24 hours before the suspension came into force.
The investigator was hoping to complete a series of interrogations before parliament begins its session on October 19, after which several suspects will benefit from parliamentary immunity.
"The course of action taken by the politicians in the Beirut blast case is becoming a parody of itself," said Aya Majzoub of Human Rights Watch.
"The accused politicians are case shopping, filing all the complaints they can think of to suspend the investigation, in every court available to them, hoping that something sticks," she told AFP.
"It is a ludicrous attempt to evade justice."
– ‘Smear campaign’ –
The August 4, 2020 explosion at Beirut port killed more than 200 people, wounded thousands more and destroyed swathes of the capital.
The Lebanese investigation into the tragedy has yet to identify a single culprit. Calls have grown for an international probe but they have been rejected by the authorities.
Since taking up the case, Bitar has summoned an array of former premiers and ministers, and top military and security officials for questioning on suspicion of criminal negligence.
Nasrallah accused Bitar of bias on Monday, saying "things cannot go on this way".
Other politicians have accused the judge of partiality in his choice of suspects to question.
"There is a political decision to prevent Bitar from proceeding with his work; it's not just a case of stalling," said lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh.
"Nasrallah's remarks are proof that patience has run out," Saghieh added.
The lawyer dismissed as "unfounded" the criticism directed towards Bitar.
"It is part of a systemic smear campaign that aims to tarnish Bitar's reputation," with the aim of facilitating his removal or undermining any findings he may make.
Sahar Mandour of Amnesty International condemned what she called "repeated excuses to suspend the probe".
Lebanese authorities, she said, "are not only dodging accountability but also undermining the expectation of accountability."
The government said it would address the "circumstances related to the investigation" at a meeting on Wednesday.
By Rouba El Husseini
© Agence France-Presse
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