Gunfire erupts near Hezbollah-led protest calling for the removal of the judge from Beirut blast investigation.
Beirut, Lebanon – At least one person has been killed and several others wounded when gunfire erupted near a Hezbollah-led protest in Beirut.
Hundreds of Hezbollah supporters and allies wearing black gathered at the Beirut Justice Palace on Thursday calling for the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar from the Beirut Port explosion probe, accusing him of being biased and an “American slave”.
Gunfire was heard from building rooftops in the nearby Tayyoune neighbourhood, scattering the angry protesters.
The Lebanese Army intervened, arresting one of the shooters. The identities and affiliations of the shooters remain unclear.
At least one person died and eight others were wounded, a source at the Sahel General Hospital in Beirut told Al Jazeera.
The protest comes two days after Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s most scathing criticism of Bitar to date. Nasrallah accused Bitar of “politically targeting” officials in his investigation.Hezbollah and Amal supporters chant slogans against Judge Bitar who is investigating last year’s deadly blast [Hussein Malla/AP Photo]
Mehieddine Lazkani, a 29-year-old who lost his father in the blast, said he was appalled that the protesters were rallying against Bitar, rather than the country’s rulers as Lebanon’s economy continues to spiral.
The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value in two years, while an electricity crisis has paralysed public life. About three-quarters of the population live in poverty, according to the UN. Much of the Lebanese population blames the crisis on the rampant corruption and financial mismanagement of Lebanon’s ruling parties and banks.
“It’s scandalous in every sense of the word,” Mehieddine Lazki, a 29 year-old who lost his father in the port explosion, told Al Jazeera. “The Lebanese pound is at 21,000 to the dollar, there is no electricity nor medicine, yet they think they should protest and replace Judge Bitar?”
Bitar has for months tried to pursue ex-ministers Ali Hasan Khalil, Ghazi Zeiter, Nouhad Machnouk, Youssef Finianos, as well as former prime minister Hasan Diab. Khalil and Zeiter belong to the Amal Movement, a Shia party led by Speaker Nabih Berri and closely allied to Hezbollah.
The judge has also requested to summon General Security chief Major-General Abbas Ibrahim and State Security head Major-General Tony Saliba. However, the Interior Ministry and Higher Defense Council did not grant him permission to do so.Army soldiers stand guard near the Justice Ministry, ahead of a protest against Judge Tarek Bitar [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]
Khalil and Zeiter issued a legal complaint on Tuesday which forced Bitar to temporarily suspend the investigation, moments after issuing an arrest warrant for Khalil. The European Union and United States State Department called for the investigation to resume without obstruction.
More than 200 people were killed and over 6,500 people wounded in the explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020, when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored unsafely at the port for years, detonated.
The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, and the most destructive single incident in Lebanon’s troubled history. Entire neighbourhoods of the country’s capital were destroyed and no officials have been convicted.
President Michel Aoun, and Prime Minister Najib Mikati continue to publicly back Judge Bitar. Mikati said that Lebanon cannot bear the removal of a second judge from the blast probe.
However, ministers belonging to Hezbollah, Amal, and some allies have reportedly pressured Cabinet to take a formal position against Bitar.