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Beirut blast probe frozen again as judge issues arrest warrant

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By Reuters
Beirut blast probe frozen again as judge issues arrest warrant
Beirut blast probe frozen again as judge issues arrest warrant   -   Copyright  Thomson Reuters 2021

BEIRUT -The probe into the catastrophic Beirut port explosion was frozen on Tuesday for the second time in less than three weeks after two politicians wanted for questioning filed a new complaint against the lead investigator, a judicial source said.

It marks another blow to Judge Tarek Bitar’s efforts to hold senior officials accountable for the Aug. 4, 2020, blast, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions on record, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swathes of Beirut.

Bitar is under enormous pressure from groups that have been accusing his probe of political bias and mounting a smear campaign against him. The leader of the powerful, heavily armed Shi’ite political movement Hezbollah announced on Monday it wanted Bitar removed from the case.

The probe was suspended in late September on the basis of a complaint questioning Bitar’s impartiality. A court rejected the complaint on procedural grounds, allowing him to continue.

Bitar has been leading the probe since Judge Fadi Sawan was removed from the case in February on the basis of a similar complaint filed by the politicians who are now challenging Bitar’s neutrality.

Shortly before being informed of the latest complaint, Bitar had issued an arrest warrant for one of the politicians who filed it, former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a senior politician close to Hezbollah.

The arrest warrant was issued after Khalil failed to show up for questioning.

Khalil, a senior member of the Shi’ite Amal movement, was not immediately reachable for comment.

The second politician was ex-public works minister Ghazi Zeiter, also a Hezbollah ally, who was due for questioning on Wednesday.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah voiced his harshest criticism yet of Bitar on Monday when he called for his replacement in a televised address, saying he was biased and politicised.

The remarks came weeks after Wafik Safa, a senior Hezbollah official, was said to have warned Bitar the group would remove him from the inquiry, according to a journalist and a judicial source.

Khalil’s arrest warrant is the second for an ex-minister arising from the investigation.

The first was issued for ex-public works minister Youssef Finianos, another Hezbollah ally, in September when he too repeatedly failed to show for questioning.

Finianos has not been arrested yet despite the warrant.

Bitar had issued multiple requests in July to question several top officials, including former prime minister Hassan Diab, several ex-ministers and the country’s top security chief about negligence.

All have denied wrongdoing.

But Bitar’s request were met with resistance and legal complaints questioning his impartiality.

While Bitar has sought to question several politicians who are allied to Hezbollah, including Khalil and Zeiter, he has not tried to question any members of Hezbollah itself.