Beirut explosion inquiry in chaos as judges row and suspects released | Beirut explosion

More than two years since the huge explosion that levelled Beirut’s port and horrified the world, a blazing row has broken out that has involved Lebanon’s leading judges filing charges against each other and all suspects in the stalled investigation being released.

The surprise moves come after Tarek Bitar, the judge tasked with investigating the blast, suddenly resumed his work. The inquiry had been stalled for more than a year, opposed by the country’s political factions, which have shown no interest in delivering justice for the 202 people killed and the hundreds more injured.

Bitar’s first act was to bring charges against Lebanon’s most senior prosecutor, two intelligence chiefs and a number of other officials for what amounts to obstructing justice. The move was unprecedented in Lebanon, where senior officials have been largely untouchable in the post-civil war years and the country’s leaders are even further off-limits.

The response by the prosecutor general, Ghassan Oueidat, was swift. On Wednesday he ordered the release of all suspects detained since the explosion – an array of functionaries who had worked at the port, well below the political masters who had carved it into fiefdoms that had enriched each major faction in Lebanon.

The developments horrified family members of people killed in the explosion – one of the biggest ever non-nuclear blasts – who have been fruitlessly demanding justice, and added further fuel to claims an internal investigation could never shed light on how the stockpile of ammonium nitrate arrived at the port, nor bring those responsible to account.

Bitar’s tactics seem to have shifted from chipping away at witnesses to indicting the entire system, which has acted as a protectorate for the interests of stakeholders, security officials, the military, political groups and the powerful non-state actor, Hezbollah, which has worked against Bitar. To some Lebanese people the symbolism remains worthwhile, even in the absence of a pathway to real justice.

“This country is broken and this is definitive proof,” said Charbel Abboud, a relative of a resident who was injured near the port. “Now the judges will fight amongst themselves, and nothing will happen. In what other country would we be so far away from justice at this point?”

“Without any local political backing, Bitar is challenging an untouchable political class over its role in the port blast,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, the communications director at Carnegie Middle East Center, which analyses political, socioeconomic and security issues in the Middle East and north Africa. “His challenge could inspire others, and would further embarrass Hezbollah, which is spearheading the counterattack. While Bitar’s move will not lead to justice, charging senior officials across the board has clear implications.”

Others are not so sure. “It doesn’t change a thing,” said Maryam Dawood, a Beirut resident. “You cannot arrest intelligence chiefs and judges here. This is just a poke in the ribs. It has no impact and is a sign that Bitar has nowhere left to go. Justice and Lebanon are doomed to be estranged.”

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