Tensions over Beirut blast investigation pushes Lebanon into new crisis

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Iran-backed Hezbollah has accused the United States of meddling in the probe into last year’s Beirut port blast which killed more than 200 people.

Demonstrators wave Lebanese flags during protests near the site of a blast at Beirut’s port area, Lebanon August 11, 2020.
(Reuters)

Growing tension over a judicial
probe into last year’s Beirut port blast threatens to push
Lebanon into yet another political crisis, testing Prime
Minister Najib Mikati’s new government as it struggles to dig
the country out of economic collapse.

More than a year since the explosion ripped through Beirut,
killing more than 200 people, Judge Tarek Bitar’s efforts to
hold senior officials to account for suspected negligence are
facing mounting political pushback.

Ministers aligned with the politicians Bitar has sought to
question were expected to press the demand for his removal at a
cabinet meeting on Wednesday, after the subject disrupted a
stormy session on Tuesday.

But the session was postponed until a framework as to how
best to tackle the row over Bitar would be agreed, an official
source told Reuters.

It is a big distraction that risks undermining Mikati, who
took office last month after more than a year of squabbling over
cabinet seats as Lebanon sank deeper into one of the world’s
worst economic depressions, analysts say.

The row has also underlined the major sway of the heavily
armed, Iran-backed Shia group Hezbollah, which has called for
Bitar to be replaced
accusing him of conducting a politicised probe picking on
certain people.

READ MORE: Hezbollah reportedly threatens Beirut explosion investigator

The most senior politician Bitar has sought to question,
former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, said all options were
open for political escalation when asked during an interview on
Tuesday whether some ministers could quit.

Khalil is the right-hand man of Parliament Speaker Nabih
Berri – the most senior Shi’ite in the state – and a close
Hezbollah ally. Khalil told al-Mayadeen TV the path of the probe
threatened to push Lebanon “towards civil strife”.

Hezbollah and its Shia ally Amal have pulled their
ministers out of government at times of political conflict, a
move that would torpedo the Sunni-led cabinet by stripping it of
Shi’ite representation.

Hezbollah accuses US of meddling

Hezbollah accused the US on Wednesday of interfering in Lebanon’s investigation into last year’s massive explosion at the Beirut port, with the aim of implicating the militant group and its allies.

Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadallah’s response to criticism from a State Department spokesperson comes amid a developing crisis engulfing the domestic probe. The investigation was temporarily suspended Tuesday amid legal challenges from defendants against lead investigator Bitar.

The US official’s comments are a “new violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty” that expose “the extent of interference aimed at controlling and steering the investigation,” Fadallah said.

Hezbollah’s comments are the first to directly accuse Washington of interfering and dictating how the port probe should go. They signal an escalation of a campaign against the 46-year-old judge that rights groups say is aimed at discrediting the investigation.

READ MORE: Top Lebanese officials implicated in Beirut blast, UN probe recommended

A general view shows the damage at the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 5, 2020.
A general view shows the damage at the site of Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area, Lebanon August 5, 2020.
(Reuters)

Energy sapping

Mikati has previously said Lebanon could not bear the loss
of a second judge after the first investigator was removed in
February when a court accepted a complaint questioning his
impartiality.

Mikati’s priority is reviving IMF talks to save Lebanon. But
he doesn’t have long, with elections due next spring.

Heiko Wimmen of Crisis Group said the row would “sap energy
and it also makes (Mikati) look weak”. “It puts a huge question
mark, or adds one, to the doubts that already everyone has
concerning the viability of this government.”

Hezbollah was “showing its brute influence and force and
that definitely reflects badly on Mikati government”, added
Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The government does not have the authority to remove Bitar
but could revoke a previous decision that transferred the probe
to the judicial council, said Nizar Saghieh, head of the Legal
Agenda, a research and advocacy organisation. This would be a
major assault on “the separation of powers”.

Foreign states from which Lebanon hopes to secure aid have
called for a transparent investigation caused by a huge quantity of unsafely stored
ammonium nitrate.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Tuesday
accused Hezbollah of threatening Lebanon’s judiciary, and being
more concerned with its own and Iran’s interests than with those
of the Lebanese people.

Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadllalah said those remarks
violated Lebanese sovereignty and showed “the level of
intervention to control the Beirut port blast investigation”.

All the former officials Bitar has sought to question on
suspected negligence deny any wrongdoing. They include Hassan
Diab, the prime minister at the time of the blast.

Bitar’s critics say he has breached the constitution by pursuing senior officials against whom any cases should pass through a special process for presidents and ministers.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies

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