BEIRUT (AP) — The judge investigating Beirut’s massive 2020 port blast resumed work Monday after a nearly 13-month halt, ordering the release of some detainees and announcing plans to charge others, including two top generals, judicial officials said.
Judge Tarek Bitar’s work had been blocked since December 2021 pending a Court of Cassation ruling after three former Cabinet ministers filed legal challenges against him. The court is the highest in the land.
Despite there being no ruling by the court, Bitar resumed working on the case Monday based on legal justifications he gave, the court officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. They did not elaborate.
Bitar did not respond to calls by The Associated Press for comment.
The Aug. 4, 2020 disaster happened when hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, detonated at Beirut’s port killing more than 200, injuring over 6,000 and damaging large parts of Beirut. The explosion is considered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.
It later emerged that the ammonium nitrate had been shipped to Lebanon in 2013 and stored improperly at a port warehouse ever since. Senior political and security officials knew of its presence but did nothing.
The judicial officials said Bitar decided to release five people who had been detained for more than two years. They include former customs chief Shafeek Merhi; Sami Hussein, the head of port’s operations at the time of the blast, and a Syrian worker. Twelve people remain in custody, including the head of the port authority and the head of the Lebanese customs at the time of the blast.
The officials added that Bitar is expected to charge eight people, including top intelligence officials Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim and Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba. Bitar previously charged three ex-ministers who had refused to show up for questioning several times and lodged legal complaints to stall the probe.
Bitar has been the subject of harsh criticism by Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah called Bitar’s investigation a “big mistake” and said it was biased. He asked the authorities to remove Bitar.
Bitar is the second judge to take the case. The first judge, Fadi Sawwan, was forced out after complaints of bias by two Cabinet ministers. If the same happens to Bitar, it could be the final blow to the investigation.