It has been 34 months since the largest non-nuclear blast in modern history shattered Beirut, and not a day has passed without attempts to obstruct justice, rubbing salt into an open wound. Lebanon continues to grapple with one of the most severe crises since the mid-nineteenth century, orchestrated by “the country’s elite that has long captured the state and lived off its economic rents.” Not many political regimes can withstand the aftermath of a man-made economic collapse and an avoidable explosion that left the city in ruins, all while evading accountability. However, the suspects in the Beirut blast have thus far succeeded in impeding the investigation. Tarek Bitar, the investigative judge leading the Beirut blast probe, has summoned numerous high-ranking officials, including security generals, judges, and former ministers, many of whom have blatantly refused to cooperate. They not only failed to appear for their scheduled questioning sessions, often under the pretext of immunities—be it parliamentary, ministerial, or that of public officials—but also actively sought to impede the entire investigation.
In this article, I delve into the legal tactics employed by suspects to suspend the probe, explain the recent ‘takeover’ by the General Public Prosecutor, and discuss potential alternative avenues to break this deadlock.
Legal contortions to sustain impunity
In conjunction with orchestrated smear campaigns against Judge Bitar, which included explicit threats of ousting and resulted in a wave of sectarian clashes in October 2021, former ministers indicted in the case have used their legal machinery to obstruct the investigation. Their tactic consisted of filing a record number of lawsuits, more than 40, to remove Bitar, claiming an alleged “legitimate suspicion of the impartiality of the judge”—a claim lacking substantive legal basis. Under the Lebanese Criminal Procedures Code, such lawsuits automatically suspend the investigation from the moment they are filed until adjudicated. In case the court found that the claims were substantiated, it would then order the removal of the judge, as was the case with former investigative judge Fadi Sawan who was removed on February 18, 2021. If not, the court would dismiss the case, and the judge would then be able to resume the probe.
Under the Lebanese Criminal Procedures Code, such lawsuits automatically suspend the investigation from the moment they are filed until adjudicated.
Until now, the lawsuits against Bitar have all been rejected, although suspects have succeeded at developing novel stalling techniques. First, they invented a ‘double lawsuit’ strategy which consisted of filing a lawsuit against Bitar, followed by another lawsuit against one or more of the judges examining the suit, blocking the court from adjudicating the initial case against Bitar. For instance, in October 2021, former Minister of Public Works and Transportation Youssef Fenianos submitted a request to disqualify Bitar in front of the Court of Appeal. Two days later, he filed another request to disqualify Nassib Elia, the president of the chamber, from handling the lawsuit. As a result, Elia was unable to rule on Bitar’s disqualification, and Bitar could not proceed with the investigation until a decision was reached in the initial case. The investigation was suspended for a month until Bitar’s disqualification case was reassigned to another judge. The saga continued, with pro-Amal Minister of Finance Youssef Khalil, refusing to sign a decree appointing replacements for the retired judges of the Court of Cassation. Legal experts pointed out that the minister’s signature is unnecessary since the decree does not carry any financial implications on the public budget. However, the issuance of the decree remains stalled due to a political decision within the Council of Ministers. As a result, the investigation was indefinitely hampered since the Court of Cassation, which was supposed to handle the lawsuits against Bitar, became paralyzed due to an insufficient quorum.
While the minister of finance handled subverting the highest court in the country for the sake of incapacitating Bitar, caretaker Minister of Justice Henry Khoury, aligned with the Free Patriotic Movement and former President Michel Aoun, lobbied in parallel to appoint a temporary investigative judge to examine detainees’ release requests. Later, Khoury pressured the Higher Judicial Council to replace Bitar with another pro-establishment judge. This anti-Bitar frenzy coincided with heightened American pressure to release Ziad El-Ouf, a Lebanese American citizen detained in the case for his responsibility as the Head of Security and Safety Department at the port of Beirut.
By mid-January 2023, after more than a year and four months of the investigation being on hold, speculations about Bitar’s imminent removal gained traction. Yet, the surprise came when Bitar took an unexpected decision on January 23 to resume the investigation. He relied on a judicial precedent that allowed him to continue working despite pending lawsuits against him. Bitar argued that the legal procedures mandating the suspension of the investigation only applied to regular investigation judges and not to investigators appointed in cases under the jurisdiction of the Judicial Council, which is the case with the Beirut blast investigation.
Bitar’s ruling was perceived as a “necessity-driven legal interpretation,” as he presented a new interpretation of the law aimed at breaking the impasse that had emerged in the case. The importance of the decision equally lies in the fact that it resulted in charging eight additional high-profile figures, including the General Public Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, and two security generals who held leading positions within the country’s security agencies.
However, Bitar’s bold decision was swiftly crushed from inside the Judicial Palace in Beirut when General Prosecutor Oueidat illegally released all the detainees in the case. Although the release decision was conditioned with a travel ban, El-Ouf quickly hopped on a flight to the United States. Oueidat did not stop there and proceeded to refer Bitar to the inspection department. He then asked his co-accused, General Director of the General Security Abbas Ibrahim, to impose a travel ban on Bitar after suing him for usurping power.
On February 6, in yet another surprising decision, Bitar indefinitely postponed the interrogations of senior officials that had been scheduled for that day. It remains unclear whether or when Bitar will resume the investigation, and the possibility of him issuing the indictment decision at this stage remains open. However, according to Lebanese law, once the investigation is complete, the investigative judge is required to send the case file to the Public Prosecution Office. At that stage, the prosecution has two options: it can either endorse the proposed decision and return the file to the investigating judge for the issuance of an indictment decision, or it can request further investigations. Given Prosecutor Oueidat’s repeated challenges to Bitar’s legitimacy, it is unlikely that he would comply with this requirement. As a result, the legality of an indictment decision issued without the submission from the prosecution is jeopardized, adding another layer of absurdity to an already Kafkaesque scene.
A prosecutorial coup par excellence: freeing the accused and attacking the investigator
While the resumption of the investigation by Bitar may have raised legal debates due to his previous stance on the suspension of the investigation when facing disqualification requests, Oueidat’s decision can only be described as a coup by the guardian of the regime against a judge fighting impunity. Unlike Bitar’s decision, the prosecutor’s decision lacked any legal rationale or explanation, as he instead quoted two passages, one from the Bible and another from the Quran, to support his decision. His message of religious unity and diversity was nothing but a dark representation of the Lebanese political scene: the rule of sectarianism trumps the rule of law.
Oueidat’s decision can only be described as a coup by the guardian of the regime against a judge fighting impunity
There are various dimensions to the illegality of Oueidat’s decision: First, anyone familiar with the criminal justice system knows that the public prosecution cannot release a person detained via a warrant issued by the investigation judge. Second, Oueidat had recused himself from the case due to a conflict of interest, as his brother-in-law, former Minister of Public Works and Transportation Ghazi Zaiter, was one of the accused. Third, Oueidat himself is personally implicated in the case and had been called for questioning by Bitar: when informed of the storage of the ammonium nitrate in June 2020, Oueidat had only instructed port authorities to repair the cracks in the hangar.
Supporters of Oueidat’s decisions, including Amal and Hezbollah, justified the release of the detained suspects by invoking the principles of fair trial, which promotes minimizing pre-trial detentions to the greatest extent possible. While there are certainly valid arguments against prolonged pre-trial detention, it is paradoxical that those sympathetic to the cause did not advocate for Bitar to resume his investigation and address the release requests accordingly. Instead, they used this claim as a plea to replace him. What is even more unsettling is that neither the public prosecutor nor politicians have ever expressed the same level of concern for nearly 80 percent of Lebanon’s prison population who are held in pre-trial detention.
While, in theory, the public prosecution department is the judicial branch tasked with defending public interest, the events that have unfolded since the beginning of the October uprising in 2019 have revealed a different reality.
Oueidat’s decision does not come as a surprise, and should be understood as yet another example of the affinity between prosecutors and the establishment. While, in theory, the public prosecution department is the judicial branch tasked with defending public interest, the events that have unfolded since the beginning of the October uprising in 2019 have revealed a different reality. Amidst protests, the public prosecution department ferociously prosecuted and arrested protesters and political opponents, covered for the crimes of security forces, proved unmatched complicity with the banking sector, and hampered the probe into the Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh. Amid an increasing crackdown on dissent, Oueidat ordered the State Security to interrogate Jean Kassir, the managing editor of media outlet Megaphone, for investigation in March 2023. The summon was prompted by a post by Megaphone entitled “Lebanon ruled by fugitives from justice” in which Oueidat’s name appeared.
Yet, the issue is not limited to Oueidat’s allegiance to the regime and is instead a symptom of structural barriers to judicial independence in the country. Since the appointment of judges requires the government’s approval, it has been customary practice for political elites to reserve sensitive judicial positions, such as the public prosecution branch, to judges who did not threaten the regime’s interests. Public prosecutors are divided on a sectarian basis, and their sectarian leaders often mediate their appointment. Accordingly, cutting the cord between political elites and the judiciary requires substantial legal reforms which do not seem to be on the horizon as the parliament has been postponing the ratification of the judicial independence bill since 2018.
Does internationalization serve justice?
In this bleak reality, the prospects of accountability seem to be declining. Undoubtedly, the judiciary’s failure to investigate political crimes in the last 20 years has promoted a general perception of its ineptitude. The coup has come at a delicate time for the justice sector amidst an unprecedented collapse of state institutions, strikes of judges and court personnel, massive depreciation of their salaries, and waves of resignation of some of the most competent judges in the country.
Understandably, the delays in the local investigation have provoked calls for the internationalization of justice. On March 7, 2023, 38 countries at the UN Human Rights Council issued a joint statement condemning the obstruction of the domestic investigation and urging Lebanon to take the necessary measures to safeguard the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and ensure a transparent and impartial investigation. The statement provides grounds for member states to advocate for a council resolution that would establish a fact-finding mission to investigate the Beirut blast. However, over the past two years, the French government has failed to support such a mission. According to Human Rights Watch, other countries were also reluctant to push for the mission before a ‘green light’ from Lebanon’s former colonizer. Despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s reception as a savior by citizens reeling from the blast, his policy soon unraveled as a neocolonialist venture that provided a new lifeline to political elites. It remains unclear whether the Human Rights Council’s statement signals any changes in the lukewarm French policy of maintaining the status quo, or if it will translate into concrete action. In all cases, even if a fact-finding mission were to be established, its scope would be limited to uncovering the facts and circumstances of the blast and its causes, without the mandate to prosecute or charge perpetrators.
Lawsuits presented by the families of the victims in foreign national courts may offer a less discretionary avenue for seeking justice. Although such lawsuits can be costly, complex, and likely limited to civil damages, they may serve a purpose in tightening the cord around the necks of the accused. Courts provide an opportunity for defendants to present their defense and provide the public with a reasoned legal ruling, making them less susceptible to political meddling. In February 2023, the High Court of Justice in London found Savarto Ltd., the chemical trading company that allegedly purchased the cargo of ammonium nitrate, liable. In the U.S., victims holding American citizenship presented a lawsuit in front of a Texas court against U.S.-Norwegian geophysical services group TGS ASA, owner of a company that chartered the vessel Rhosus, the carrier of the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. The ongoing prosecution of Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh in France for financial crimes serves as a promising example of accountability before foreign courts. Exploring possibilities for prosecuting politicians accused of atrocity crimes through universal jurisdiction is also worth considering.
In addition to the above, there have been widespread calls for the international community to impose targeted sanctions on officials implicated in the hampering of justice. While such sanctions may be useful in pressuring a seemingly bulletproof regime, this narrative should be approached with extra scrutiny. It is no secret that sanctions, even targeted ones, are prone to political manipulation. Media reports had hinted that American pressures to release El-Ouf were coupled with serious threats of sanctions against Head of the Higher Judicial Council Souheil Abboud. This raises concerns that sanctions could be employed covertly to advance foreign political and economic agendas, and may reignite and fuel sectarian narratives rather than bring about accountability. Additionally, there is some evidence to indicate that even targeted sanctions may have unintended consequences in a small national economy like Lebanon’s; it is important to ensure that they do not further worsen an already grim economic crisis.
While the said reforms would be an ideal pathway to revive the investigation, reality has it that the political establishment has transformed state institutions, including the parliament, into a ploy to serve the regime’s interests.
In any scenario, the internationalization of the dispute should not halt the pressure for resuming the local investigation. The Lebanese Judges’ Association, established in 2018 in overt defiance of the regime, has demanded the resignation of General Prosecutor Oueidat, an unprecedented position paving the way for resistance from within the sector and signaling further schisms between judges. On March 28, 2023, the Coalition for the Independence of the Judiciary along with opposition members of the parliament announced a legislative initiative in which they revealed that they will propose legal amendments that would allow the investigation to continue despite requests to disqualify the judge. However, while the said reforms would be an ideal pathway to revive the investigation, reality has it that the political establishment has transformed state institutions, including the parliament, into a ploy to serve the regime’s interests. Reports by Legal Agenda’s Parliamentary Observatory provide ample evidence of how ‘unwelcome’ draft laws were effectively buried in the parliament’s drawers. Even when these drafts were brought up for discussion, Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri would often succeed in obstructing their enactment through a rigged decision-making and voting system. Nevertheless, the initiative carries significance by throwing the ball in the parliament’s court.
Ultimately, irrespective of the chosen legal avenue and procedure, it remains crucial to situate the investigation within the broader goal of state-building and put an end to an entrenched cycle of impunity. This investigation is the first case of indicting such a high number of officials in the modern history of Lebanon, a period shaped and defined by a post-war amnesty law that pardoned all crimes and allowed warlords to rebrand themselves as sectarian leaders and politicians. The fears that the failure of the Beirut blast probe would be the final nail in the coffin of the judiciary are thus not unfounded. It is not an exaggeration to state that the outcome of this investigation, along with the outcomes related to the prosecution of financial crimes committed by Salameh and other bankers, will undoubtedly shape the trajectory of the country. If these investigations do not reach their intended conclusions, the Beirut port explosion and the banking sector’s grand theft will become yet additions to a long list of unpunished crimes.
Lama Karamé is a lawyer and researcher, with a focus on public interest law and social justice.