BEIRUT – The judge investigating the deadly 2020 Beirut port blast said he had postponed interrogations of senior current and former officials that had been set to begin on Monday until a legal dispute over the extent of his powers can be resolved.
Last month Judge Tarek Bitar resumed his inquiry into the disastrous explosion that killed more than 220 people after a 13-month suspension caused by legal wrangling and high-level political pressure.
He issued charges against some of Lebanon’s most powerful figures, including top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, who in turn filed charges against Bitar for allegedly exceeding his powers and ordered security forces not to obey Bitar’s orders.
Bitar, who denies the accusations, had set interrogation sessions for about a dozen current and former officials in February, beginning with former ministers Ghazi Zeaiter and Nouhad Machnouk on Monday.
He had also set sessions for former prime minister Hassan Diab and the intelligence chief, Major General Abbas Ibrahim.
But Bitar told Reuters that he had indefinitely postponed the hearings until the dispute between his inquiry and the public prosecutor’s office could be resolved and the investigation could “proceed in a proper manner”.
Some 40 Lebanese lawmakers and groups representing judges and lawyers have called for Oueidat to reverse his decisions and allow Bitar to resume his investigation.
For his part, Oueidat has the support of Lebanon’s long entrenched establishment, including the powerful, heavily armed Iran-backed Hezbollah group, which has fiercely opposed Bitar’s investigation and accused him of bias.
The judicial stand-off has left little hope among many Lebanese of justice being served over the 2020 blast, raising concern the case will go the way of countless others in a country where impunity has long been the norm.