Lawyers for former ministers Ali Hasan Khalil and Ghazi Zeiter register new legal complaint against Judge Tarek Bitar.
Beirut, Lebanon – The probe into the Beirut port explosion has been suspended after two former ministers facing charges lodged a new legal complaint against the lead investigator.
The development came moments after Judge Tarek Bitar issued an arrest warrant for ex-finance minister Ali Hasan Khalil , a key ally of Speaker Nabih Berri and Hezbollah on Tuesday, after he did not show up for questioning.
Shortly afterwards, the judge was notified that lawyers for Khalil and former public works minister Ghazi Zeiter, who has also been charged, had made a new request to dismiss him from the case, a judicial source told Al Jazeera.
Bitar’s other questioning sessions scheduled this week for Khalil, Zeiter and former interior minister Nouhad Machnouk have been suspended.
The request on Tuesday was Zeiter and Khalil’s third attempt to remove Bitar from his position as the head of the probe into the explosion at Beirut’s port last August, which killed more than 200 people, injured about 6,500 and devastated large parts of the city.
Their initial request filed late last month led to the temporary suspension of the probe. The request was rejected by the Appeals Court on October 4, followed by another rejection from the Cassation Court on Monday.
Machnouk and former Public Works Minister Youssef Finianos previously lodged two separate legal complaints against the judge. Bitar issued an arrest warrant for Finianos in September, but it has not been implemented. The judge had also summoned former Prime Minister Hassan Diab for an interrogation later this month.
The judge has come under huge pressure from groups who have accused him of political bias. On Monday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused Bitar of using “the blood of the victims to serve political interests”, and effectively called for his replacement.
Legal experts have rejected accusations that Bitar has targeted individuals for political reasons. Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer with the Legal Agenda watchdog organisation, told Al Jazeera on Monday that Bitar has charged and pursued officials with “clear documentation and evidence”.
Families of the victims who continue to back the judge have said Lebanese officials are systematically obstructing the investigation.
Bitar has led the Beirut blast probe since February, after his predecessor Judge Fadi Sawan was removed following a similar legal complaint that questioned his impartiality. In their complaint against Sawan, Zeiter and Khalil said that he could not hold a partial investigation because his home in Beirut was damaged in the blast.
Following the Aug 4 explosion the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned on Sept 20, 2020 former Lebanese government ministers Yusuf Finyanus and Ali Hassan Khalil, who provided material support to Hezbollah and engaged in corruption. These designations underscore how some Lebanese politicians have conspired with Hezbollah at the expense of the Lebanese people and institutions.
“Corruption has run rampant in Lebanon, and Hezbollah has exploited the political system to spread its malign influence,” said Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.