Lebanese court dismisses latest complaint against Beirut blast judge

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A Lebanese court on Thursday dismissed the latest legal complaint brought against the lead investigator of the Beirut port blast probe, allowing him to resume work, a judicial source and court documents showed. The ruling came as gunfire was reported near the site of a protest calling for the judge’s removal.

Judge Tarek Bitar, a target of a political campaign led by the Shiite movements Hezbollah and Amal, was forced to suspend his probe for a second time in less than a month on Tuesday over lawsuits filed by former ministers he had summoned on suspicion of criminal negligence.

The suspension coincided with deep divisions within the government over whether to replace the controversial investigator, who is seen as a last hope for justice by many Lebanese but is condemned as biased and corrupt by political leaders.

On Thursday, the Court of Cassation turned down a lawsuit filed by two ex-ministers demanding a replacement, a court official told AFP on the condition of anonymity.

“Bitar does not fall under the court’s jurisdiction so it does not have the authority to consider requests for his dismissal,” the official said.

It is the second time this month that the judiciary has ruled in favour of Bitar, who is hailed by human rights groups and relatives of blast victims as a symbol of judicial independence in a country where political impunity has long been the norm.

The ruling, which goes into effect immediately, would allow Bitar to resume enquiries into the August 4 explosion which killed more than 200 people and destroyed large swathes of the capital.

But the investigator’s fate is all but clear as Hezbollah and Amal press ahead with a campaign aimed at removing him.

Supporters of the two Shiite movements gathered outside the Judicial Palace in Beirut amid a heavy troop deployment on Thursday to demand Bitar’s replacement.

The protest followed a speech on Monday by Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah who called for an “honest” judge to replace Bitar.

Ali Hasan Khalil, a senior Amal movement lawmaker, threatened a “political escalation” if the course of the investigation “was not rectified” after Bitar on Tuesday issued an arrest warrant against him for failing to show up for questioning.

The August 4 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, at least 215 people were killed and thousands wounded, some of them several kilometres 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.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)

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