Politics

Hizbullah threats seek to dampen resolve to uncover truth about port blast

By Tamer Abu Zeid

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A woman holds a sign showing a photo of a man reacting at the scene of the 2020 Beirut port blast, at a protest near the UNESCO palace in the Lebanese capital on August 12, ahead of a parliamentary meeting on the blast investigation. [Anwar Amro/AFP]

BEIRUT -- Lebanese observers are disregarding Hizbullah's accusations that the latest investigation into the Beirut port explosion has been politicised.

Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah on August 7 warned against "politicising" a probe into the two deadly blasts at the port on August 4, 2020, rejecting accusations that the group was involved in bringing explosive fertiliser to the dockside, AFP reported.

His remarks came after Lebanon marked one year since tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser exploded at a Beirut port warehouse, killing at least 214 people and wrecking swathes of the city.

In recent weeks, the Shia group's detractors have claimed it was involved in bringing the substance to the port so it could be dispatched to neighbouring Syria to be used by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Hizbullah's ally, in barrel bombs during the Syrian civil war.

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A general view of the scene of the explosion that hit Beirut port on August 4, 2020. [Ziad Hatem/Al-Mashareq]

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What remains of a grain silo that was damaged in the explosion that devastated the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020. [Ziad Hatem/Al-Mashareq]

Nasrallah in his speech also took a swipe at the lead judge probing the explosion, calling on him to provide proof to back up his decision to summon current and former officials for questioning in the case.

"Where is the evidence?" he said, calling on Judge Tareq al-Bitar to share the evidence.

Judge al-Bitar has demanded that Lebanon's parliament lift the immunity of three former ministers so he can proceed with investigations, but lawmakers have requested more evidence before deciding on whether to waive immunity.

Al-Bitar has rejected the parliament's request.

All three former ministers belong to parties that are close allies of Hizbullah.

The acting interior minister did not allow al-Bitar to question top intelligence official Abbas Ibrahim over the blast, either.

"The investigation is politicised," Nasrallah said. "Either he [al-Bitar] must work... in a clear manner, or the judiciary must find another judge."

In February, al-Bitar's predecessor as lead judge in the probe was removed.

'No shame'

"[Nasrallah] has no shame. He got rid of the first judge investigating the port [explosion], and now he is trying to get rid of the second," said former Lebanese MP Fares Souaid.

"It was clear that [Nasrallah] was threatening Judge al-Bitar in his last media appearance," he said.

"What needs to be done is not only lifting immunities but also ending the Iranian occupation of Lebanon," Souaid said.

Lawyer and constitutional scholar Saeed Malek said Hizbullah is worried that "concrete and conclusive facts" that could confirm the party's responsibility in the import and storage of ammonium nitrate will be found in the course of the investigation.

"Hizbullah will do whatever is necessary to remove Judge al-Bitar," he said. "So, we must remain by his side and provide him with the necessary support to uncover the truth."

"The only way to protect the investigation is to implement the requests of the investigative judge with regard to lifting the immunities of ministers and MPs," Malek said.

Not the first time

Hizbullah's stance on the Beirut port investigation is reminiscent of its stance on the investigation into the 2005 assassination of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, which included similar accusations of politicisation, Malek said.

A United Nations special tribunal ultimately found Salim Jamil Ayyash, a senior Hizbullah operative, guilty in the assassination trial, and sentenced him in absentia to five concurrent sentences of life imprisonment on terrorism-related charges.

Ayyash is believed to be in hiding in Lebanon, where Nasrallah has refused to hand him over.

"Hopes are still pinned on the local investigation... that it would reach the desired result," Malek said of the port blast investigation.

"But in the event that it fails to do so... we will be forced to turn to an international investigation, or at least to an international fact-finding committee in order to present a report," he said.

Hizbullah "is aware of the extent of its responsibility for what happened, and will try hard to conceal and obscure the facts and refuse to hand over its accused members", Malek said.

The party will also "ask ministers close to it to not comply with the demands of the investigative judge", he added.

Amnesty International on August 2 accused the Lebanese authorities of "shamelessly" obstructing the investigation and thereby blocking compensation and insurance payments to the victims.

"Given the scale of this tragedy, it is astounding to see how far the Lebanese authorities are prepared to go to shield themselves from scrutiny," Amnesty's deputy regional director Lynn Maalouf said.

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