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Lebanese protest over efforts to hamstring blast probe

LEBANON-BLAST-PROBE:Lebanese protest in anger over efforts to hamstring blast probe
LEBANON-BLAST-PROBE:Lebanese protest in anger over efforts to hamstring blast probe Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023
Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023
By Reuters
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BEIRUT - More than 200 demonstrators gathered outside Lebanon's justice palace on Thursday to protest efforts to derail a probe into the deadly 2020 Beirut port blast, as the country's top judges prepared to discuss the investigation's fate.

Judge Tarek Bitar announced on Monday he was resuming his probe into the explosion that killed more than 220 people, after a 13-month suspension caused by legal wrangling and high-level political pressure.

But the country's top public prosecutor Ghassan Oweidat objected, filed charges against Bitar and released the remaining 17 detainees still held over the investigation.

On Thursday, Oweidat issued an additional decision telling the judiciary not to accept any orders, warrants or other documents issued by Bitar.

The explosion, one of the largest non-nuclear blasts on record, was caused by hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate unloaded at the port in 2013.

Families of those killed in the blast, members of parliament and other Lebanese flocked to Lebanon's justice palace to demand Bitar be allowed to carry on.

Some protesters tried to break in, but the doors were sealed and heavily guarded. Inside, Oweidat's office was blocked off by a cluster of police with shields and helmets.

"This is a judicial scandal," said lawyer Ali Abbas. "Families of the victims are being wronged - there is complete disregard for this crime," he told Reuters.

George Bezdjian, whose daughter Jessica died when the blast ripped through the hospital where she was working as a nurse, pledged the families would keep protesting in support of Bitar.

"We have nothing to lose. We already lost the most precious things we have," he said.

Lebanon's Supreme Judicial Council is set to meet on Thursday afternoon to discuss developments in the port blast investigation.

Those protesting said they feared the country's most senior judges could decide to remove Bitar from the case or appoint a supplementary judge that would effectively sap Bitar's power.

Bitar told Reuters on Wednesday that top prosecutor Ghassan Oweidat "had no right" to file a charge or release detainees because Oweidat himself was charged over the explosion.

This week's developments have set up a tug-of-war in Lebanon's judiciary, where politicians have influence over many appointments.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said late Wednesday that splits in the judiciary could have "dangerous consequences” if left unresolved.

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