BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group Monday escalated his attack on the judge leading the probe into last year’s port explosion, calling on authorities to replace him with a “truthful and transparent” investigator.
Judge Tarek Bitar was appointed in February by a government body to lead the investigation. A court ruled to remove Bitar’s predecessor after he faced similar accusations of bias from former officials.
Bitar has been the recipient of heavy criticism from Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, who has repeatedly accused him of politicizing the probe.
On Monday, Nasrallah spent nearly a quarter of his one-hour speech meant to address the country’s multiple crises to criticize almost every decision Bitar has made. He accused him of politicizing the probe, targeting mainly officials who are allies of Hezbollah while failing to even question others.
“I am addressing the high judicial council. What is happening has nothing to do with justice or the law and you must resolve this,” Nasrallah said. If the government-appointed council doesn’t, the Cabinet must interfere, he said.
“We want a truthful and transparent judge,” Nasrallah said. “We have a big problem. What is happening is a very big, big, big, big, big mistake that won’t lead to justice or truth.”
There was no immediate response from Bitar, who has not publicly responded to accusations against him and has kept the investigation secret so far.
On Aug. 4, 2020, hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers, exploded, killing at least 214 people, injuring over 6,000 and devastating the city.
The material had been improperly stored in the port for years. Independent media and rights groups revealed that most of Lebanon’s senior political and security leadership knew of the explosives stored at the port, but did nothing to take precautions or warn the public.
Addressing the families of the victims killed in the blast, Nasrallah said: “If you are expecting to reach justice and truth with this judge, I say you won’t.”
The relatives and rights groups have been protesting against what they consider to be political interference and efforts to stall the probe.
Some politicians have challenged Bitar in court, accusing him of violating the constitution or of showing bias. There were also reports of threats leveled against the judge and the government has vowed to increase his security.
Most of the lawsuits have so far been shelved but they have caused the probe to stop for at least a week. Nasrallah criticized the courts that have refused to take on cases against Bitar.
Some Lebanese have pointed the finger at Hezbollah, saying it may have stored explosives at the port, a charge the group denies. No evidence has emerged that links Hezbollah directly to the blast and none of its members are defendants in the case.
Bitar’s removal, if it happens, will be a major blow to the investigation, and a clear violation of the already questioned independence of the judiciary.
Bitar was scheduled Tuesday to question lawmaker Ali Hassan Khalil. It wasn’t clear if the former finance minister would show up. He was among those who challenged Bitar in the courts and has previously declined to appear for questioning.