Judicial Council Asks Bitar to Finish Probe ASAP as He Insists on Summoning MPs
Beirut port blast investigator Judge Tarek Bitar on Monday joined a Higher Judicial Council meeting after he was summoned by the conferees, media reports said.
State Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat meanwhile left the meeting seeing as he had been recused from the port case.
A statement issued by the Council said the summoning of Bitar was based on Article 4 of the judiciary’s law, which stipulates that “the Higher Judicial Council oversees the judiciary’s proper functioning, dignity and independence and takes the necessary decisions in this regard.”
“The Council’s members listened to Bitar and discussed with him what has been raised regarding the Beirut port blast file, stressing the need to finalize the investigation as soon as possible according to the legal norms, in order to fulfill justice and hold the perpetrators responsible,” the statement added.
Al-Jadeed TV meanwhile reported that Justice Minister Henri Khoury has sent a memo to parliament in which he mentioned that Bitar is insisting on continuing his prosecution of the ex-ministers and incumbent MPs according to Article 97 of parliament’s bylaws.
“Parliament Bureau will meet with the administration and justice (parliamentary) committee to take a decision on the Justice Minister’s memo and decide whether to halt or keep the prosecution,” the TV network added.
The Council had started its meetings on Tuesday to discuss several issues after new members were appointed.
The summoning of Bitar comes amid intense criticism from Hizbullah of the direction of the long-running investigation.
Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has accused Bitar of politicizing the probe and singling out some officials and not others. He has also called on the government to remove Bitar.
Bitar has been in the post since February, after his predecessor was removed by a court decision following legal challenges from senior government officials who were also summoned.
Nasrallah's accusations marked a major escalation in rhetoric targeting Bitar and were followed by protests last week by supporters of Hizbullah and its ally Amal against the judge. The protests descended into violence unseen in Lebanon in years: Seven people were killed and dozens were injured during five hours of clashes between supporters of the two groups and gunmen accused of being allied with the Lebanese Forces party.
Critics held Bitar responsible for the bloodshed.
But on Tuesday, the judge went ahead with summoning two former government ministers, one of them an ally of Hizbullah, for questioning regarding the port blast.
Bitar had issued arrest warrants for the two ex-ministers but with the resumption of parliament sessions Tuesday following a recess, the ministers reclaimed parliamentary immunity, which had shielded them from previous interrogation.
The two former ministers, Ghazi Zoaiter and Nouhad al-Mashnouq, are also lawmakers. They have been summoned to appear Oct. 29.
The former ministers' legal teams argue that with parliamentary immunity in place, the officials are exempt from appearing before the judge. But according to the parliament's bylaws, Bitar can renew his summonses because he first called for their questioning in a period when parliament was in recess -- at a time when the two men had briefly lost their immunity.
Legal experts have called it the "battle of immunities" as the defendants and the lead judge have looked for loopholes in the law to each get their way.
The result has been interruptions of the investigation, which is centered on what caused the explosion of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive fertilizer often used to make bombs, stored in the port for years.
Independent media and rights groups have revealed that senior government officials knew of the material stored in the port but did nothing to store it properly or warn the public of its presence and danger.
More than 215 people died and over 6,000 were injured in the blast that devastated parts of the city Beirut.