BEIRUT: Lebanon’s top public prosecutor on Wednesday charged the Beirut port blast investigating judge and ordered the release of those detained in connection with the explosion, after rejecting the judge’s surprise resumption of the probe.

But Tarek Bitar, the judge, said he would continue his probe despite mounting resistance. He said he would “continue until I issue an indictment” and said the prosecutor “had no right” to file the charge or release detainees.

The moves by prosecutor Ghassan Oweidat signal escalating opposition by Lebanon’s establishment to efforts by judge Bitar to reopen the probe into the Aug 4, 2020, blast that killed more than 220 people. In a text message, Oweidat said he had summoned Bitar for questioning, but did not specify whether he had charged him.

A judicial source had earlier said Oweidat had filed charges against Bitar over alleged wrongdoing in his handling of the probe.

The US announces it will grant $72 million to Lebanon so that it can give cash stipends to its soldiers.

Bitar on Monday unexpectedly resumed his investigation into the explosion after high-level political interference and legal complaints had paralysed the probe for more than a year.

He also charged top current and former officials, including Oweidat, without specifying the charges against the top prosecutor.

Oweidat on Tuesday sent a letter to Bitar saying his probe remained suspended and on Wednesday issued a decision, saying the judge did not have the authority to resume his investigation.

In the same decision, Oweidat released all those detained in connection with the probe “without exception”, but said they would face a travel ban.

Impunity is the norm

For Lebanese desperate to see accountability over the explosion, Bitar symbolises hope that justice may one day be served in a country where impunity has long been the norm.

At least 17 people, mostly low- to mid-level officials, had been detained since 2020 in relation to the case, said Amnesty Interna­tional, in conditions it said could violate their due process rights.

Badri Daher, who headed the customs authority at the time of the blast and was the most senior official detained following the explosion, was freed on Wednesday.

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.

Soldiers’ salaries

The United States announced on Wednesday it would provide $72 million as cash stipends to Lebanon’s security forces through a bespoke United Nations programme after a currency meltdown slashed salaries.

Lebanon’s currency has lost 97 per cent of its value against the dollar since the country’s financial system collapsed in 2019, driving down most soldiers’ monthly wages to around $80. The military has been squeezed so badly that its canteens stopped serving meat to troops in 2020 and it began offering sightseeing tours in its helicopters to raise cash.

US Ambassador Dorothy Shea said the scheme was a “temporary” measure “in light of the urgency of Lebanon’s economic situation”.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2023

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