A UN expert on Wednesday expressed grave concern over interference in the probe into the deadly 2020 Beirut port explosion, including threats against the investigating judge.
In a statement, Margaret Satterthwaite, UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, denounced the “undue delays that have prevented justice for those affected by the blast.”
“I am deeply disturbed by reports that former state officials and others who have been implicated in the case have disingenuously resorted to recusal proceedings and other challenging actions directed at the investigating judges appointed to examine the case,” Satterthwaite said.
“This has led to the replacement of an investigating judge in February 2021, as well as several suspensions of the investigation in recent months.”
To date, no one has been tried for the August 2020 explosion, which left 218 people dead, 7,000 injured and 300,000 displaced, she said.
She cited reports that since the explosion was submitted to the Lebanese Judicial Council for investigation, authorities have refused legal requests to remove parliamentary immunity and permit questioning of security personnel.
Additionally, the government has not carried out arrest warrants issued against former ministers, she added.
Judge Tarek Bitar, who was chosen to oversee the investigation, has encountered a growing number of challenges and threats, the UN official said.
“On 23 January 2023, Judge Bitar announced that, after a pause, he would resume investigations into the port explosion. Two days later, he was charged with several offenses, including ‘usurpation of power’ and a travel ban was imposed,” said Satterthwaite.
“A number of motions have been filed with the intention of removing Judge Bitar from the case, and there is an ongoing campaign on television and social media to discredit him.”
The judge has reportedly received credible death threats and currently has military protection, according to the UN expert.
“Judge Bitar must have the security he needs to carry out his work,” Satterthwaite underlined, urging Lebanese authorities to investigate the threats and ensure adequate protection for him, his family, and colleagues.