Tension in Lebanon rises as elites bury blast probe
BEIRUT (Reuters) -In their move to bury an investigation into the Beirut port blast, Lebanon's ruling elite have driven another nail in the coffin of the collapsing state, stirring conflict in the judiciary as they try to avoid accountability at any cost.
Long-simmering tensions over the investigation have boiled over since Judge Tarek Bitar brought charges against some of the most influential people in the land, defying political pressure as he resumed his inquiry.
With friends and allies of Lebanon's most powerful factions, including Hezbollah, among those charged, the establishment struck back swiftly on Wednesday, when the prosecutor general charged Bitar with usurping powers.
Critics called it "a coup" against his investigation.
It leaves little hope of justice ever being served over the explosion that killed 220 people and devastated swathes of Beirut, raising concern the case will go the way of countless others in a country where impunity has long been the norm.
With deep fissures in the judiciary exposed, the tussle adds to the unravelling of a state accelerated by a three-year-long financial crisis, left to fester by the ruling elite.
"This is the destruction of the judiciary," said Nabil Boumonsef, deputy editor-in-chief of Annahar newspaper.
"I fear they are dismantling the country. There is nothing left called a state. We face anarchy and the law of the jungle."
Lebanon has been rocked by one crisis after another since its financial system caved in, marking the start of its most destabilising phase since the 1975-90 civil war.
A currency collapse of more than 97% since 2019 has picked up speed in recent days, impoverishing ever more people.
Some 2.3 million people - 42% of the population - will face acute food insecurity in the first quarter of this year, according to a U.N.-backed study.
Foreign aid has become ever more critical to keeping people fed and the security forces on the streets: the United States and Qatar are helping pay soldiers' salaries.
Ruling politicians have meanwhile done little to nothing to address the crisis, putting vested interests ahead of reform.
ESTABLISHMENT SHIELDS ITSELF
On the political front, factional rivalries, many of which date to the civil war, have spawned an unprecedented government crisis laced with sectarianism.
The presidency, reserved for a Maronite Christian, has been vacant for months. Maronite leaders, warning against any move to bypass their sect, have objected to meetings of the Sunni Muslim-led caretaker cabinet.
Against this backdrop, European prosecutors are digging ever deeper into allegations that central bank governor Riad Salameh - a financial linchpin for Lebanon's rulers with deep political ties - embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars during his 30-year-long tenure. Salameh denies any wrongdoing.
Attempts by a Lebanese judge to investigate Salameh have hit obstacles in Lebanon, where politicians have big sway over the judiciary.
The difficulties echo the problems faced by Bitar, appointed to investigate the blast two years ago. His predecessor was ousted after complaints against him by officials he had charged.
"There is a systemic attempt by the establishment to protect its members from the port explosion, from the financial implosions, and from all ... they have actually been responsible for," Policy Initiative Director Sami Atallah said.
The blast was caused by hundreds of tonnes of improperly stored chemicals of which the president and prime minister at the time were aware, among other officials.
All those charged deny wrongdoing.
Bitar's inquiry was frozen when judges retired from a court that must rule on complaints filed against him by officials he had charged, including top members of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's Amal Movement.
The Berri-backed finance minister held off signing a decree appointing new judges, prompting fears of an indefinite limbo.
Resuming his work on Monday, Bitar charged more officials including Prosecutor General Ghassan Oweidat and Major General Abbas Ibrahim, a security official with good ties to the powerful, heavily armed Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah group.
Oweidat had earlier recused himself from any involvement in the case as his brother-in-law, an Amal member and former minister, was among those charged.
This week Oweidat hit back at Bitar, including by ordering the release of people detained since the port explosion.
"This is like a coup - a person charged by a judge decided to defend himself by pushing aside the judge who charged him and releasing all the detainees," said Nizar Saghieh of the Legal Agenda civic group.
Doubting local authorities will bring anyone to account over the explosion, some Lebanese called for an international inquiry from the start.
It would not be the first: a U.N.-backed tribunal set up after the 2005 Rafik al-Hariri assassination ultimately convicted a Hezbollah member of conspiracy to kill him.
The Iran-backed Hezbollah, which always denied any role, condemned the tribunal as a tool of its enemies.
In opposing Bitar, Hezbollah has accused the United States of meddling in the investigation and Bitar of political bias.
Washington denies interfering.
Hezbollah believes Bitar's decision to resume the inquiry stemmed from his recent meeting with French judges investigating the blast, which killed two French citizens, according to a source familiar with Hezbollah's view.
Bitar could not be reached for comment.
In 2021, a Hezbollah official sent a message to Bitar vowing to "uproot" him, and its supporters marched in an anti-Bitar rally that prompted deadly violence along an old civil war front line between Christian and Shi'ite neighbourhoods.
Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center think tank said derailing the inquiry could worsen sectarian tensions. He noted that while the blast had killed Lebanese of all sects, the worst damage was largely in Christian-majority areas and the Maronite patriarch had called for justice.
With the presidency empty, sectarian rhetoric sharpening, the currency tumbling, and people taking security into their own hands in some areas, Hage Ali said "the ingredients are there" for any street clashes to be worse than in 2021.
"If there is a demonstration of the families of the victims, and their supporters, leading to clashes, casualties or arrests, that could definitely well be the breaking point towards wider unrest."
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Emelie Madi; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)