The area adjacent to the Justice Palace in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, has turned into an arena for armed clashes that killed at least six people and wounded dozens.
The clashes, in which rocket-propelled grenades were used, coincided with a vigil organized by supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal movement to demand the resignation of the investigative judge in the case of the Beirut port explosion, Tariq Bitar.
Who is Bitar, and how did the divisions over him reach the point of armed clashes?
After months of investigating the Beirut port explosion in 2020, which killed more than two hundred people, Bitar found himself at the center of a raging battle between the various political forces in Lebanon.
Bitar was appointed as a judge to investigate the explosion in February 2021Replacing Fadi Sawan, who was ordered to be removed by the Criminal Court of Cassation, after accepting a lawsuit demanding this, following his request to interrogate former Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers.
Bitar, who is investigating the biggest case in the country since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, is a somewhat mysterious figure for the Lebanese, as he does not speak much to the press and does not appear in public events.
He was born, according to Lebanese media, in the town of Aidmon in the Akkar governorate in 1974, and joined the Judicial Studies Institute in 1999.
Judge judgments strict
Bitar served as a single criminal judge in Tripoli between 2004 and 2010, handling financial crime cases. Then he was appointed as an appellate public prosecutor in northern Lebanon until 2017, and took charge of investigating crimes against some political and media figures.
In addition to his role as a forensic investigator in the Beirut port explosion, Bitar has held the position of President of the Beirut Criminal Court since 2017.
During his tenure as president of the court, he considered a number of major criminal cases that occupied public opinion, including murder, drug trafficking and human trafficking, and some of the decisions issued by his court were described as strict.
In May of this year, Al-Bitar’s name was widely circulated in Lebanon after he issued a ruling in the case of a Lebanese girl who had her fingers amputated as a result of a medical error. As he issued a ruling to pay the parties causing the damage an amount of one billion pounds )around 650 one thousand dollars ( for the girl’s family, in addition to a monthly stipend for her life.
accusations of politicization
Bitar spent the first five months of his appointment as a judge to investigate the explosion in the port of Beirut, studying the case file and listening to witnesses. He also issued decisions to release some people who had been detained pending the case.
However, since last July, he has entered into a confrontation with the political class after he requested the lifting of the parliamentary immunity of the former minister and MP Nohad Al-Machnouk, in addition to MP Ghazi Zuaiter, in preparation for the prosecution against them. He also called for the interrogation of a number of officials, including current and former security leaders.
Then, in August, he issued a subpoena against the then-caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, before the date of his interrogation session, which he had scheduled at the time. 20 September.
But, like his predecessor, he encountered seeming obstacles, some of which are legal and constitutional, while many see that they are nothing but a circumvention of justice and the possibility of accountability, and he was unable to interrogate any of the people he summoned, as some of them have parliamentary immunity that has not been lifted, and others enjoy administrative protections.
He also began to face campaigns accusing him of politicizing the case file and of targeting personalities belonging to a particular political movement and not others, and demanding his removal. Among the most prominent critics of him were figures belonging to the Amal and Hezbollah movements.
Support the families of the victims
In the face of the political pressure that Bitar was subjected to, the families of the victims of the port explosion launched a campaign to support him by carrying out protest agreements calling for continued investigations and justice and accusing the political class of trying to obstruct it.
Among these vigils was a sit-down organized by a number of families of the victims in Marfa in front of the homes of Representatives Nohad Al-Machnouk and Ghazi Zuaiter, in which they shouted slogans against the two men.
Families also hold a vigil on the fourth of every month, during which families carry pictures of those who have gone missing and sit silently, reminding them of their case, which they fear will follow many other cases in the country, in which the investigation did not reach any result and no one was held accountable for it.
Suspension of investigations
At the end of last September, Bitar was waiting to start interrogation sessions for a number of the defendants. Indeed, he summoned the former minister and MP Nohad Al-Machnouk, as well as MPs Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zuaiter, for questioning as defendants of the crime of negligence and possible intent that led to the murder.
But the expected month has turned into a date for the investigation of the case to be suspended, for the first time since Bitar received the file and the second since the investigations began, after former Minister Nohad al-Mashnouq filed a lawsuit demanding the exemption of Bitar.
The appeals court dismissed the case on October 4, prompting the investigations to resume and political pressures to return.
During the past few days, the pressure on Bitar has escalated, as Hezbollah escalated its criticism of the investigative judge through its Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, who sharply criticized Bitar, accusing him again of being biased and politicized.
As for the investigation, it was again suspended in 12 October after two former ministers filed a new lawsuit demanding the removal of Bitar.
and in 14This month, while the Court of Cassation was issuing its decision dismissing the two ministers’ suit and Bitar’s continuation of the mission entrusted to him, hundreds of Hezbollah and Amal supporters gathered in front of the Justice Palace in Beirut to denounce him and demand his removal.
A short time later, the sounds of gunfire were heard in the place, which turned into an arena for bloody clashes that ended after the army intervened and deployed in the area.
While the political parties are engaged in exchanging accusations about the moral and actual responsibility for the clashes and the atmosphere of tension that preceded them, people in Lebanon are holding their breath for fear of any possible escalation.
As for Judge Tariq Bitar, he will continue his mission as a judge to investigate the explosion of Beirut Port by order of the court, but his mission remains in the midst of political strife, without investigations so far resulting in the conviction of anyone, while more Lebanese families are turning the page today and have lost more of their children.