BEIRUT — Judge Tarek Bitar burst back onto the Lebanese political scene this week when he resumed his probe into the 2020 Beirut port explosion — ending a 13-month hiatus and bringing on new political challenges.
The families of the port blast view Bitar as their last hope to uncover the truth in the explosion that killed over 200 people, ravaged Beirut, but with no yet being held accountable. Part of the political class, particularly those affiliated with the militant group Hezbollah and its ally Amal, turned against Bitar as he brought charges against high-ranking politicians and security officials at the top of the power echelon in Lebanon.
The move rattled the political elite and prompted the country's General Prosecutor Ghassan Oweidat to slap Bitar with a travel ban on Wednesday.
Bitar, 49, is unique in Lebanon for his lack of political affiliation, and for having a reputation of professionalism and neutrality throughout his public service. A deeper understanding of his life, career and actions in relation to the investigation provides valuable insight into various issues that have plagued Lebanon for years.
Bitar was born in 1974 in the village of Aydamun in northern Lebanon, to a Christian family. After earning a law degree at the Lebanese University, he began his career as a lawyer and later worked as a criminal judge in the northern city of Tripoli until 2010. Bitar then worked as a public prosecutor in northern Lebanon until 2017, when he moved to the capital Beirut to become head of the Beirut Criminal Court.
During his tenure as an investigator, he handled several high-profile criminal cases that received significant public attention. One example was the 2015 case of six-year-old Ella Tannous, who was a victim of medical malpractice, and the deadly shooting of Lebanese student Roy Hammouche in 2017.
These cases gained Bitar a good reputation in the legal field. He is described by peers as an honest, hard-working and dedicated judge.
عريضة دعم ل #طارق_بيطار ولكشف الحقيقة واحقاق الحق في جريمة تسببت ب ٢٢٠ ضحية وآلاف الجرحى وتدمير نصف #بيروت.— Antoine Haddad (@antoine_haddad) January 27, 2023
يمكن التوقيع على الرابط ادناه.
Petition in support to judge #Tarek_Bitar, truth and justice for 220+ victims and thousands injuries in #BeirutBlast https://t.co/MuxGQ2RKrV
Bitar claims to have no affiliation with any political party. This is rare in Lebanon, where sectarian allegiance often infiltrate all aspects of society including politics.
The Judge gained popularity among the Lebanese in February 2021, when he was appointed as the lead investigator into the Beirut port blast, following the dismissal of Judge Fadi Sawan. His predecessor was forced out after complaints by Cabinet members following the charging of former Prime Minister Hassan Diab and other former ministers.
Nizar Saghieh, founder of the Lebanese organization Legal Agenda, told Al-Monitor that Bitar was seen as a neutral and experienced figure by all parties when he took over the probe. However, as he began summoning key figures, some politicians — particularly those close to Hezbollah and Amal — accused him of being politicized and receiving orders from the US Embassy in Beirut.
“I believe that, to some extent, judge Bitar has support from the community, but he was also very isolated and faced a lot of attacks in the media and court,” Saghieh told Al-Monitor.
Bitar has faced similar difficulties to Sawan since taking over the probe. Like his predecessor, Bitar has summoned several key figures believed to be responsible for the blast. This included Diab and former ministers such as Ali Hassan Khalil, Youssef Fenianos and Ghazi Zaiter on charges of criminal negligence. All have refused to cooperate with both Sawan and Bitar and have sought to discredit the judges.
“He was bullied and attacked by TV analysts and journalists who claimed that he was not fair,” said Saghieh. "These lies were spread to harm his reputation and legitimize their actions.”
Members of parliament have also delayed voting on Bitar's request to lift immunity from prosecution for politicians and high-level security officials suspected in the case, effectively preventing the judge from investigating the most senior figures in Lebanon.
The tension over Bitar's investigation culminated in October 2021, when protests calling for Bitar's removal escalated into a deadly street battle between supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal parties and snipers allegedly affiliated with the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian political party. Seven people were killed and more than 30 were injured in clashes in a neighborhood that had been a frontline between different sects during Lebanon's civil war.
This violence further exacerbated the already politicized debate surrounding responsibility for the port explosion. It also led to division among the victims' families, with some supporting Bitar and others calling for his removal.
Bitar’s probe was suspended in December 2021, pending a ruling from the Court of Cassation in response to three former Cabinet ministers filed legal challenges against him. This was the third time Bitar had to suspend the probe due to lawsuits.
His return to the investigation has elicited mixed reactions in Lebanon, and many were surprised the judge resumed the probe due to the continued legal challenges. Overall, the public and civil society welcomed the probe starting up again. Hundreds of Lebanese protested outside the Palace of Justice Jan. 26, demanding accountability for the explosion. On the other hand, some members of the political and judicial establishment expressed disapproval.
It is unsurprising that Bitar’s recent charges have shaken the Lebanese establishment. Upon resuming the case, Bitar charged eight individuals — including some high-ranking officials. The charges included homicide with probable intent against Diab, member of parliament Ghazi Zaiter and former interior minister Nouhad Machnouk.
Bitar additionally charged Oweidat, the head of Lebanon's domestic intelligence agency, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, and former army commander Jean Kahwaji, among others, according to court documents obtained by Reuters. The Associated Press also reported Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba as among those charged.
Oweidat, himself implicated in the probe, objected to the resumption and filed charges against Bitar in response. He also released all of those previously detained under the investigation and placed a travel ban on Bitar, though Bitar said Oweidat has no authority over him.
Saghieh said the campaign against Bitar has intensified due to the support he has from the public.
“I think because he had a lot of confidence and support from the people and the victims, they became even harsher on him, as they wanted to destroy this confidence and support,” said Saghieh. “I think he is the first Lebanese judge who has been applauded by tens of thousands of people in the streets.”
Bitar has arranged hearing the testimony of 15 individuals in February, those include leading current and former security officials, Al-Jadeed TV reported. Due to the differing legal views on whether Bitar was able to resume the probe, some of his orders may not be implemented immediately — if at all.
Can he end impunity?
Bitar carries a heavy burden. His task is not only to avoid allowing the political class to evade accountability for the explosion, but also to uncover the truth behind the blast and uphold the rule of law — something that has been lacking in Lebanon for years.
Saghieh said that Bitar can make progress in the investigation with or without cooperation from the accused, as long as things remain peaceful.
“If someone chooses to cooperate and be investigated, that's great, but if not, he will still proceed with the investigation and make his final charges,” he said. “This interpretation makes it possible for him to do so unless there is physical aggression against him.”