Hezbollah wants judge in Beirut port blast probe removed

BEIRUT (AP) — The Lebanese militant Hezbollah group and its allies called Wednesday for the removal of the judge leading the probe into last year’s massive explosion at Beirut’s port. The move could derail the country’s new government even before it begins tackling Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis.

A Cabinet meeting was canceled Wednesday after Hezbollah demanded urgent government action against the judge. One Hezbollah-allied minister said he and other Cabinet members would stage a walkout if Judge Tarek Bitar isn’t removed; protests against the judge were called for Thursday.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah and allied senior Lebanese politicians have been assailing Bitar for weeks, accusing him of singling out politicians for questioning, most of them allied with Hezbollah. None of Hezbollah’s officials have so far been charged in the 14-month-old investigation. The probe was temporarily suspended Tuesday amid legal challenges against Bitar.

Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadallah, took the criticism a step further Wednesday. He claimed the United States was interfering in the investigation, seeking to implicate Hezbollah and its allies, and dictating how the probe should go.

The remarks by Fadallah were in response to U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price’s criticism of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s call earlier in the week that called for Bitar’s removal. Price said Washington supports Lebanon’s judicial independence.

“Judges must be free from threats and intimidation, including (Hezbollah’s),” Price said Tuesday. “Hezbollah’s terrorism and illicit activities threaten Lebanon’s security, stability and sovereignty.”

Price accused Hezbollah — designated a terrorist group by Washington — of being “more concerned with its own interests and those of its patron, Iran, than in the best interests of the Lebanese people.”

Fadlallah said Price’s comments are a “new violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty” that expose “the extent of interference aimed at controlling and steering the investigation.”

Bitar is the second judge to lead the probe into what caused thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port for years to detonate. He has come under criticism by some politicians for what they say is a politicized and biased line of investigation.

Bitar is known for having no history of political affiliation. His predecessor was removed earlier this year, when senior government officials implicated in the case filed a lawsuit raising “legitimate suspicion” against him.

Families of the victims of the port explosion, which killed at least 215 people, injured thousands more and devastated entire neighborhoods of the Lebanese capital, have rallied behind Bitar. On Wednesday, they warned against removing the judge and demanded the Cabinet to stay out of the judiciary’s affairs.

“Keep your hands off the judiciary,” said the families in a statement.

Hezbollah’s comments were the first to accuse Washington of interfering in the port probe, signaling that the militant group was escalating the campaign against the 46-year-old judge. Rights groups say the development seeks to discredit the investigation.

It’s unclear how Lebanon’s new government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati will react. Only Lebanon’s highest court can remove Bitar. A government-appointed body can, however, take disciplinary action against him.

Bitar has issued arrest warrants against two former government officials, a rare move against the entrenched political elites in Lebanon, where impunity has prevailed for decades. The two remain at large.

Lebanon was without a fully functioning government for over a year amid political haggling over its composition and as the nation sunk deeper into an unprecedented financial crisis and economic meltdown. Mikati and his Cabinet took office last month.

Elie Hasrouti, whose father was killed in the port explosion, said the families of the victims would not waver in their quest for justice. They hold Lebanon’s political elite responsible for the explosion and say many knew of the explosive chemicals improperly stored at the port.

“We will not drop this case,” said Hasrouti.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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