BEIRUT: Judge Tarek Bitar was appointed Friday as the new lead investigator of the Beirut blast probe, one day after the previous judge was removed from the case.
The Higher Judicial Council approved Bitar as the next investigator after caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm proposed his name.
Najm had proposed Judge Samer Younes earlier but his name was quickly rejected by the council for his close ties to President Michel Aoun.
Younes’ name was recommended by the caretaker justice minister back in August, but was also rejected at the time on the same basis.
Judge Fadi Sawwan was removed from the probe Thursday in a move that brought the entire investigation, six months from the blast, back to square one as the new investigator has to re-launch the probe.
Families of victims had earlier gathered at the Justice Palace to protest for the second consecutive day the decision to remove the lead investigator from the examination.
Protesters blocked the road on both sides of the main Sami al-Solh Avenue in Beirut’s Adlieh area, burning tires and chanting loudly.
Infuriated by a court ruling that removed Judge Fadi Sawwan over six months after the largest non-nuclear explosion in history, family members held photos of their dead loved ones and raised signs that read: “Where is the justice?”
One protester, mother of late State Security member Charbel Matta who was killed at the port, told local media that she was determined to do whatever it takes to unveil the truth.
“Is it difficult to conclude who did it? When a massacre of this scale occurs, the least these men in charge can do is resign. We do not accept this. The crime was easy, and reaching the truth is difficult, but we are not leaving until we do. They cannot start the investigation all over again now,” she went on to say.
A Lebanese court Thursday dismissed Sawwan, who had begun summoning and charging former ministers with negligence over the blast that killed at least 210 people, and injured and displaced thousands more. Details of the decision to eliminate Sawwan were not made public, but a copy of the report was leaked to local media outlets and cited that the summoned former ministers had accused Sawwan of "disrespecting parliamentary immunity" and made the case that he would be unable to rule impartially given that his house was also damaged by the explosion.
Following hours of protest, a delegation from the families of the victims met Friday afternoon inside the Justice Palace with Judge Souheil Abboud, who assured them that an "honest, brave, competent and apolitical" judge would be selected.
Afterward, in a live statement to local media, the delegation guaranteed that the protests would not halt with the appointment of a new judge, but rather persist until a verdict was reached.
"The only weapon we have against them is pressure from the streets, and we will not stop," the delegation spokesperson stated.
"We blame you [the government] fully for this crime, and there will be revenge. We vow to follow you wherever you go, even in your dreams," he went on to say.
“This is not a game. People died and they cannot continue to play with their lives like this. We demand Fadi Sawwan be reappointed to the case, otherwise six months will have gone to waste,” said the nephew of late port worker Joseph Merhi, who died at the scene on Aug. 4.