Beirut blast probe judge: Disciplinet and defiant

He has been quietly investigating one of the worst non-nuclear blasts in history for eight months with just four assistants and many powerful detractors.

Beirut blast probe judge: Disciplinet and defiant

Judge Tarek Bitar became a household name in Lebanon, and is a regular on every news bulletin.

Bitar's investigation into last year's Beirut port explosion represents Bitar's only hope of finding truth and accountability in a country where they long for both. A billboard in Beirut depicting a fist with a saw holding a knife reads: "Only Tarek could take our revenge," an Arabic play on the last name of the judge.

The 47-year-old, enigmatic man has become a nightmare for the country's established political class. As they seldom do, politicians have gathered to remove him from office, apparently seeing him as a greater threat than the country’s collapsed economy, empty coffers, burgeoning unemployment, poverty, and public anger.

Bitar summoned a dozen former and current officials of the government, some on charges of criminal negligence or homicide with probable intention. When two former ministers refused to appear, Bitar issued arrest warrants.

The Aug. 4, 2020 port blast that killed more than 215 people resulted from the explosion of hundreds of tons ammonium nitrate, which had been stored in a warehouse for many years. This was apparently at the request of senior security officers and politicians who knew nothing. The blast also caused the destruction of parts of the city and injured more than 6,000 people.

Nearly everything remains unsolved, from the identity of the shipper to the reason why they ignored repeated warnings about the danger.

Bitar, a low-profile figure -- only a few photos of him are public -- has won the trust of many Lebanese -- including relatives of victims.

George Bezdjian said that his daughter Jessica, a nurse and mother, had "big faith", up to 90%, in Judge Bitar leading them to justice.

Bitar, according to Bezdjian, is a calm, soft-spoken man. He has not been associated with any political party or nepotism. Bitar is professional and persistent.

The judge's office was without electricity on a recent morning. A legal expert who was familiar with the case stated that Bitar and his two assistants shared one monitor in the humid room.

"It's quite shocking to walk into his office, and see one computer screen and two people supporting him...as he is trying solve the largest crime in Lebanon’s modern history," said the legal expert. He spoke on condition of anonymity so that details about the private meeting could be shared.

Bitar, the second judge in charge of the case was appointed in February. Bitar's work has been challenged at every stage.

The suspect officials initially tried to hide behind professional or parliamentary immunity and declined to appear before him. In an apparent effort to inflame sectarian grudges within a country split along sectarian lines, they accused him of picking out certain officials and not others. They sued him and attempted to discredit him by claiming he was biased and was allied to foreign powers.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah - arguably the most powerful man in the country - called for his removal earlier this month.

A demonstration by supporters of Hezbollah, along with the Shiite group Amal and other Hezbollah supporters, escalated to the most violent violence in the capital's history. Seven people were killed, and Bitar was accused of being a threat to the social peace.

Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Kassim stated Saturday that Bitar, the investigative judge, has become a problem in Lebanon. He said that Bitar was almost at the center of a major conflict, making it the most direct attempt to tie Bitar to civil unrest.

Hatem Madi is a retired judge and prosecutor who said that he had never witnessed such a conflict between the judiciary and the political class.

The Prime Minister Najib Mikati's new government is currently in an impasse over how to respond with Bitar.

Bitar, however, has not relented and continues to issue his summonses to high ranking officials. Bitar now walks around with his guards.

Although the judge was open to questions and visitors about the legal process, he has not revealed his next steps, according to the legal expert.

Bitar was born in 1974 to a Catholic family in northern Lebanon. He studied law at the Lebanese University, Beirut and then went on to train at a judicial academy in order to become a judge. In 2012, Bitar was elected a northern Lebanon public attorney. He remained in that position until 2017, when he was named head of the Beirut Criminal Court.

He issued several sentences in cases that rocked Lebanon, including the shooting at close range of an 18-year-old man after a traffic accident. A case of malpractice in which a young girl lost four limbs was also a case in which he fined doctors at private hospitals a large sum.

The former justice minister approached Bitar to fill the position soon after the explosion at Port Arthur. Bitar realized the magnitude of the task and told those he met that the former justice minister approached him to take the post. Bitar also asked for the lifting of immunity to lawmakers so that he could question them.

The legal expert stated that no one responded to his questions, which would have required legal modifications.

After his predecessor had been removed by a court order due to legal challenges from politicians, Bitar was approached again by the same minister. After realizing that he was the only candidate, he agreed to accept.

Bitar was deeply loved by the relatives of victims of that port blast. One witness said that the judge had told him that he approached the case like his daughter was killed.

Bezdjian stated that Bitar had told the families that Bitar felt a responsibility for those who were killed, wounded or displaced as well as because "half my capital was destroyed."

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