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Home World News Washington Post World News Top prosecutor orders release of prisoners of Beirut port explosion

Top prosecutor orders release of prisoners of Beirut port explosion



BEIRUT — Lebanon’s top prosecutor on Wednesday ordered the release of all suspects detained in the investigation into the deadly 2020 Beirut port explosion and has brought charges against the judge who led the investigation, he told The Associated Press .

Chief Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oweidat’s move marked another blow to the investigation, which has been stalled for years. The investigation threatened to upset Lebanon’s ruling elite, which is rife with corruption and mismanagement, and has contributed to sending the country into an unprecedented economic collapse.

Oweidat accused Bitar of resuming his work despite legal challenges against him that stopped the investigation, of abusing authority, of performing work that violated his prerogatives and of exceeding his authority. He also issued a travel ban.

The decision came after Bitar resumed its investigation into the devastating blast at the port on Monday, following a 13-month halt due to legal challenges raised by politicians accused in the investigation, including the chief prosecutor.

Bitar said in a statement Wednesday that Oweidat’s decision to release the detainees was “illegal” and that he could not sue a judge who had already charged him in an investigation.

Oweidat announced in December 2020 that he was withdrawing from any involvement in the investigation of the explosion in Beirut due to his ties to indicted former minister and parliamentarian Ghazi Zeiter.

Bitar told The Associated Press he will continue with the investigation “even if it costs me my life” and hopes an indictment will be brought before the third anniversary of the blast in August.

“I have nothing against Judge Oweidat, but there are some suspicions. He should come and defend himself,” Bitar said. “I will continue with the case and I will not leave it unless they remove me completely.”

“Everyone I call must come because the blood of the victims is above all else,” the judge added.

Hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizer, exploded at the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, killing 218 people, injuring more than 6,000 and damaging large parts of the Lebanese capital.

Seventeen detainees have been in pre-trial detention for years awaiting the results of the investigation. Although they were ordered to be released, they must remain in the country.

Lawyer Sakher El Hachem, who represents former port authority chief Hassan Koraytem and former port official U.S. citizen Ziad al-Ouf, told the AP they have received confirmation of the court’s decision and his clients will appear on Wednesday. will be released.

The officials added that Oweidat sent a police officer to Bitar’s residence to inform him of the allegations and instruct Bitar to visit his office, but the maverick investigator refused to speak to him.

Mody Koraytem, ​​the sister of the former Port Authority chief, said the release of the detainees was long overdue and she claimed they were all innocent.

“As a port administration, they couldn’t have done anything about it (the ammonium nitrate),” she said, adding that they were doing their job since the judiciary had approved the deadly cargo to enter the port.

Some detainees had already left the prison late Wednesday afternoon, including former customs chief Badri Daher. “Oweidat has acted legally correctly,” said his lawyer Celine Atallah. Daher could not be reached for comment.

Judge Bitar is the second investigator to lead the investigation into the port blast and has charged more than a dozen senior political, security, port and security officials.

On Monday, Bitar ordered the release of five of the 17 detainees in the case and charged eight officials, including top intelligence officials Major General Abbas Ibrahim and Major General Tony Saliba, as well as Oweidat.

The judge also summoned at least 14 politicians and judicial, security and customs officials for questioning in February. Senior officials have repeatedly refused to appear for questioning since the investigation began.

Bitar took up his post following the February 2021 resignation of Judge Fadi Sawwan over complaints of bias by two cabinet ministers. If he is also removed, it could be the final blow to the investigation.

Most of the families of the blast victims have supported Bitar and called on authorities to allow a thorough and unfettered investigation. However, some have lost hope of a domestic inquiry and have advocated a UN-mandated fact-finding mission.

They condemned Oweidat’s decision on Wednesday and called for protest.

“It destroys any hope we have left,” said Paul Naggear, an activist for the families of the blast victims and the father of a 3-year-old who died in the explosion. “They want to end the investigation. This is the only explanation.”

Naggear said he sympathizes with the prisoners’ families. But he believes they have been “manipulated” by the Lebanese political leadership to blame Bitar for not releasing them sooner, rather than blaming the authorities for shelving the investigation.

Amnesty International said Lebanese authorities are not interested in justice.

“The Lebanese authorities flouted the law, blatantly evaded an ongoing criminal investigation and retaliated against a judge who was simply doing his job,” said Amnesty’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, Aya Majzoub.

The Lebanese political leadership has accused Bitar with no evidence of bias in his investigation, with some demanding his removal.

Lebanese media reported earlier Wednesday that the Supreme Judicial Council, the country’s highest judicial body, will meet on Thursday to discuss Bitar’s status in the investigation and a proposal to include an assistant judge in the investigation.

Associated Press writer Abby Sewell Beirut contributed to this report.

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