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Lebanese rally behind port blast judge forced to halt probe

BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of Lebanese, including families of the Beirut port explosion victims, rallied Wednesday outside the court of justice in the capital to support the judge investigating the blast after he was forced to suspend his work.

The suspension was triggered by a legal challenge submitted by a former Cabinet minister, who is a defendant in the case. A court must now make a ruling on whether he is removed or can continue the investigation.

Several lawmakers and former officials charged in the case by Bitar have filed lawsuits against him, asking that he step down on grounds of violating the law or showing bias.

More than a year after the blast that devastated the city and killed more than 200 people, there are no answers on what caused highly explosive materials stored in the port for years to ignite on Aug. 4, 2020.

Rights groups and local media investigation revealed that most of Lebanon’s senior leadership and security agencies knew of the nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate and did little to protect residents of Beirut against it. But over the past year, senior politicians have closed ranks in their efforts to block the probe.

The attempt to remove Bitar has angered families of the victims.

Also, Lebanese media said that Bitar reported to prosecutors threats he received by a senior Hezbollah official, through a third party, which said it was losing patience with the way he is carrying out the investigation.

Tension briefly broke out at Wednesday’s protest outside the Justice Palace as some chanted against Hezbollah, while other family members said they wanted the issue to remain above Lebanon’s divisive politics.

“Judge Bitar received threats and after the threat they may recuse him from the case. Why? … Why is he threatened and why could he be removed?” asked Vicky Atallah, whose daughter was killed in the port explosion. “If (this happens) with every judge, who can be brought to account in this country? How can we get our rights as citizens?”

The protesters raised banners reading: “we will not forget” and “we will not allow the killers to torpedo the investigation.”

“We are your army. We are with you and we have your back,” said one of the victims’ relatives, in reference to Bitar.

Many of the families have already demanded an internationally led probe in the country known for a culture of impunity.

Bitar is the second judge to take on the complicated investigation. A court asked his predecessor to step down earlier this year, following similar legal challenges. Various political leaders now accuse Bitar of politicizing the investigation by going after some officials and not others and ignoring immunity granted to lawmakers and government officials.