The judge at the head of the investigation into the Beirut explosion: discreet and provocative

BEIRUT (AP) – For eight months, he quietly investigated one of the world’s worst non-nuclear explosions with just four assistants – and many powerful detractors trying to block him.

By this time, Judge Tarek Bitar had become a household name in Lebanon and a staple of all news bulletins.

For many Lebanese, Bitar’s investigation into the massive Beirut port explosion last year is their only hope for truth and accountability in a country that thirsts for both. Billboards in Beirut show a fist holding a hammer: “Only Tarek can take revenge,” an Arabic play on words using the judge’s last name.

But for the country’s established political class, the enigmatic 47-year-old has become a nightmare. Politicians united as they rarely do to remove him from his post, apparently seeing him as a far greater threat than the collapse of the country’s economy, empty state coffers and soaring unemployment. , poverty and public anger.

Bitar did not hesitate to summon a dozen senior government officials, past and present, some of them for criminal negligence and homicide with probable intent. He issued arrest warrants against two former ministers when they refused to appear before him.

More than 215 people died in the port explosion on August 4, 2020, caused by the detonation of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse for years, apparently to the knowledge of senior politicians and officials. security who did nothing about it. The explosion also injured 6,000 people and destroyed parts of the city.

More than a year after the government launched a judicial inquiry, almost everything else remains unknown – from who ordered the expedition to why authorities have ignored repeated warnings of the danger.

But Bitar’s low profile – there are only a few public photos of him – has won the trust of many Lebanese, including those close to the victims.

“We are up to 90% convinced that Judge Bitar will bring us to justice,” said George Bezdjian, whose daughter Jessica, a nurse, was killed in the blast.

Bezdjian and others who have met Bitar describe a soft-spoken, calm and courageous man who has stayed away from political affiliations or nepotism and displayed professionalism and tenacity.

Recently there was no electricity in the judge’s office. In the damp room, Bitar and two assistants shared a computer screen, a legal expert familiar with the case said.

“It’s quite shocking when you walk into his office and there is a computer screen and two people helping him… as he tries to solve the biggest crime in modern Lebanese history.” , said the legal expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. private meeting details.

The second judge to lead the case, Bitar, was appointed in February. His work has been questioned every step of the way.

At first, those responsible hid behind parliamentary or professional immunity, refusing to appear before him. They accused him of choosing some officials and not others, in an apparent attempt to stir up sectarian grudges in a country divided along sectarian lines. Then they sued him and tried to discredit him, claiming he was biased and was allied with foreign powers.

Earlier this month, the call to fire him finally came – from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, arguably the most powerful man in the country.

An anti-Bitar protest by supporters of Hezbollah and the allied Shiite group Amal, led by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, escalated into the worst violence the capital has seen in years. Seven people were killed and accusations followed that Bitar was a threat to social peace.

“Investigating judge Bitar has become a real problem in Lebanon,” Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Kassim said on Saturday. “Because of him, we almost had a major conflict,” he said, in the clearest attempt to date to tie Bitar to civil unrest.

Hatem Madi, a veteran judge and prosecutor, said he had never witnessed such an impasse between the political class and the judiciary.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s new government is already at an impasse on how to respond to calls for Bitar’s impeachment.

Meanwhile, Bitar did not back down, reissuing his summons to senior officials. He now travels with guards.

The judge has been open to visitors and questions about the court process, but is careful not to disclose his upcoming moves, the legal expert said.

Born in 1974 to a secular Catholic family in northern Lebanon, Bitar studied law at the Lebanese University of Beirut and then trained at a judicial academy to obtain his judge’s degree. He was appointed prosecutor in northern Lebanon in 2012, a position he held until 2017, when he was appointed head of the Beirut criminal court.

There he handed down several convictions in cases that rocked Lebanon, such as the point-blank shooting of a young man following a traffic accident. He also imposed a hefty fine on doctors in private hospitals for a malpractice case that cost a young girl all four of his limbs.

Bitar was first approached by the former justice minister to take the post shortly after the port explosion. Realizing the scale of the challenge, Bitar told people he had met that he had asked for a larger team of assistants for the investigation. He also called for the immunity of lawmakers to be lifted so that he could question them.

No one responded to his requests, which would have required legal changes, said the lawyer.

The same minister approached Bitar again in February after his predecessor was removed from his post by a court ruling following legal challenges from politicians. He agreed after realizing he was the only candidate.

Relatives of the port blast victims described Bitar as deeply sympathetic to their quest for justice. A man said the judge told him he approached the case as if his own daughter had been killed.

Bezdjian said Bitar told families he felt a responsibility because of those killed, injured and displaced and because “half of my capital has been destroyed”.

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