Lebanon: Undue interference in the Beirut Port Blast Investigation is leaving the Legal System on the Brink of Collapse

The Lebanese authorities must remove all obstacles impeding the investigation into the Beirut Port Blast on 4 August 2020, and ensure that any related disputes be resolved in compliance with rule of law principles and through legally established procedures, the International Commission of Jurists said today.    

In the aftermath of over 25 requests by politicians suspected of involvement in the explosion to dismiss the judge appointed to lead the investigation, Judge Tarek Bitar, and because of the inability of the Cassation Court to secure the necessary quorum to review these requests, the probe into the blast has been stalled since 23 December 2021.  

On 23 January 2023, Judge Bitar resumed his investigation, ordering the release of five suspects arrested during the months between August 2020 and September 2021, and charging and summoning for interrogation current and former senior high-ranking officials, including Lebanon’s Prosecutor General, Ghassan Oweidat; the Director General of General Security, Abbas Ibrahim; the Director General of State Security, Tony Saliba; and the former Army Chief, Jean Kahwaji. 

The exact charges against Ghassan Oweidat have not been confirmed yet, but one judicial source stated that Judge Bitar has found that Ghassan Oweidat had “not acted responsibly with regard to the [stockpiling of] ammonium nitrate” at the port. In addition, Judge Bitar charged Ghassan Oweidat with “usurping power” under article 306 of the Lebanese Penal Code, and with “misusing his power or influence” under articles 375, 376 and 377 of the Penal Code; he also  imposed a travel ban on him, and summoned him for questioning.  

The following day, responding to the charges, Ghassan Oweidat sent Judge Bitar a letter stating that his probe was still suspended and that law enforcement officials would not execute his orders, and would consider them invalid.  

On 25 January 2023, Ghassan Oueidat also ordered the release of all suspects detained in relation to the Beirut Blast. Law enforcement officials executed the release orders.    

“The Prosecutor General is interfering in an individual case in total disregard of international standards on the strict separation between prosecutorial and judicial functions,” said Said Benarbia, ICJ MENA Director. “Through such interference, and the ensuing blanket release of all pre-trial detainees outside of any judicial process, the Prosecutor General is eroding the very fabric of an already weakened Lebanese legal system.”   

International standards establish that prosecutors, including prosecutors general, do not fulfill the requirements under international human rights law for judicial supervision over arrest, detention or release of suspects or accused persons in criminal proceedings. 

While it is still unclear what new charges Judge Bitar has brought against current and former officials, and the basis upon which they were brought, the ICJ notes that Judge Bitar’s decisions may be challenged and reviewed through existing, well-established legal procedures.     

One of history’s most powerful non-nuclear explosions, the 4 August 2020 Beirut port blast killed at least 217 people, injuring 7,000 others, and caused major infrastructural damage that forcibly displaced around 300,000 people 

More than two years have passed since the explosion, and all domestic attempts to conduct an independent, impartial and transparent investigation into the blast, have thus far failed. 

The Lebanese authorities have repeatedly obstructed the domestic investigation into the blast by shielding politicians and officials implicated in the explosion from questioning, prosecution, and arrest. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Legal Action Worldwide, Legal Agenda and the International Commission of Jurists have documented a range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation, including blatant political interference, immunity for high-level political officials, lack of respect for fair trial standards and other due process violations. 

Families of those killed in the blast gathered outside Lebanon’s Justice Palace on 26 January to demand that Judge Bitar be allowed to carry on his investigation. Following a similar gathering outside the Justice Palace on 10 January 2023 to protest against the stalled investigation, several relatives of the victims were summoned for questioning by the police.  

“The Lebanese authorities would go to any length to shield perpetrators from accountability and betray the victims and their relatives,” added Benarbia. “ Now more than ever, the UN Human Rights Council must establish an international, independent and impartial investigation to enquire into the port blast.”  

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