Beirut blast judge's fate sparks political crisis
Lebanon's month-old government called off a cabinet session Wednesday as a political crisis brewed within its ranks over whether to remove a judge investigating the massive August 2020 Beirut port blast.
The debate comes at a time when Lebanese are desperately waiting for the government, formed in September after protracted horse-trading, to tackle Lebanon's dire economic crisis.
Judge Tarek Bitar was forced to suspend his probe on Tuesday after former ministers he had summoned on suspicion of negligence filed lawsuits against him.
He is now emerging as the target of a political campaign led by the Shiite movements Hezbollah and Amal.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah accused him this week of political bias.
Senior Amal lawmaker and former minister Ali Hasan Khalil threatened a "political escalation" if the course of the investigation "was not rectified", after Bitar on Tuesday issued an arrest warrant against him for failing to show up for questioning.
A cabinet session Tuesday ended with a row as ministers affiliated with Hezbollah and Amal pressed the government to support their demand to replace Bitar, according to a senior official who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
A follow-up session scheduled for Wednesday was postponed, signalling no agreement has been reached between factions in the cabinet, with some ministers arguing the government should not intervene in judicial matters.
Supporters of Hezbollah and Amal called for an anti-Bitar rally on Thursday near the Justice Palace in Beirut, the site where relatives of blast victims usually stage protests denouncing political interference.
Since taking up the case, Bitar has summoned an array of former premiers and ministers as well as top military and security officials for questioning on suspicion of criminal negligence.
He also called in two other ex-ministers for questioning this week before he was forced to pause his probe for the second time in less than a month.
The country's political leaders, including a group of former premiers, have criticised him for trying to investigate officials who can only be tried by a special court.
Rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly accused officials of interfering with the course of the investigation in order to dodge accountability.
Blast victims' relatives, who are avid supporters of Bitar, fear he will meet the same fate as his predecessor, Fadi Sawan, who was also forced to suspend investigations then removed in February.
The 4 August, 2020 explosion at Beirut's port killed more than 200 people, wounded thousands more and destroyed swathes of the capital.