Blast victims' relatives rally for embattled probe judge


Scores of protesters Thursday scuffled with riot police in Beirut as they tried to break into the Justice Palace.

Security was tight at the palace of justice in Beirut as activists and families of the port blast victims rallied in front of the Justice Palace ahead of a Higher Judicial Council to support the judge investigating the disaster.

They protested recent moves by State Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oueidat who has charged Beirut port blast investigator Judge Tarek Bitar and released all suspects detained in connection with the deadly blast, including port chief and head of customs Badri Daher.

Experts have warned that the battle between Bitar and Oueidat, who has charged him with insubordination, will be a critical test for the faltering justice system of the crisis-hit Mediterranean nation.

The organisation of families of those killed called the move against Bitar a "political, security and judicial coup d'état".

Lebanon has a history of political assassinations, and authorities are now "entirely responsible for the judge's safety," the families warned.

Former head of the Beirut Bar Association MP Melhem Khalaf called the situation "a judicial disaster."

Khalaf and MP Najat Saliba of the change parliamentary bloc had started last week an open-ended sit-in inside parliament to press for the election of a new president.

He left parliament today for the first time since he started the sit-in to join the families of the victims. Many other change and opposition MPs joined the rally.

The Higher Judicial Council was scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon to discuss the latest developments in the inquest but canceled due to a lack of quorum as six members refused that the council convene under popular pressure.

Oueidat was in the building but failed to join the council and stayed in his office guarded by armored security forces, who later escorted him out.

Advocates for Bitar, which include most of the families of the blast victims, feared the judicial meeting would have issued a decision to remove the maverick judge from the probe.

"The Higher Judicial Council is responsible for putting this farce to an end," Khalaf said. "They must explain to us what is happening with the judiciary."

Khalaf called on the justice minister to "find solutions" so that the probe can proceed, describing the situation as "judicial and legal hysteria".

"We had faith in justice, but the mask has now fallen," said protester Abdo Matta, 54, who lost his son in the explosion.

"We will never stop, we want to know who killed our children."

The judicial arm-wrestling between Bitar and Oueidat risks deepening Lebanon's mounting woes, and some warn it may be the last nail in the coffin of a notoriously politicized justice system.

"The future of this case is fraught with danger," said legal expert Paul Morcos.

The complex case is subject to "immense political pressure that Lebanon's justice system cannot surmount, creating this huge rift," he added.

Several demonstrators were wounded as police confronted the crowds and beat some people with batons. Security forces also arrested an activist lawyer, Wassif Harakeh, but released him shortly after.

Activist William Noun, who lost his brother in the fatal port explosion, called for an international investigation to replace the stalled Lebanese probe.

“What happened yesterday was pathetic,” Noun told the AP. “We want an international investigation, or the judiciary should either give us a solution after the meeting, or say they can't handle the case anymore and leave matters into our own hands.”

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