The third anniversary of the port blast is arriving, and the investigation remains buried under the ashes of a coup. Upon each anniversary, we find ourselves facing obstructed justice – justice clawed away at by the political forces to prevent any accountability.
During the first year, the investigation stalled because all the political authorities concerned refused to lift immunities. During the second year, it was stalled by dozens of disqualification and maljudging cases filed by the forces opposing it – cases that automatically suspended an investigation irrespective of their earnestness. Meanwhile, Judicial Council Investigator Tareq Bitar faced record levels of vilification, bullying, and threats. The gravity of the maljudging cases peaked after the ruling political forces aborted the judicial personnel charts. This move deprived the Full Bench of the Court of Cassation, which has jurisdiction over maljudging cases, of the ability to adjudicate them, thereby perpetuating their suspensive effect on the disqualification cases and the investigation indefinitely. While Bitar attempted, in the decision he issued on 23 January 2023, to overcome these obstacles using what we deemed “necessity-based legal interpretation”, within hours he was met with the most ruthless coup against justice.
This coup, which has defined the third year, was led by Cassation Public Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat with backing from the heads of the security agencies and the anti-investigation political forces and – most importantly – indifference from the minister of justice, who did not lift a finger against it. Oueidat took three unprecedented measures. Firstly, he retook the reins of the Public Prosecution in the case, contravening the Court of Cassation decision to accept his recusal from it. Secondly, Oueidat charged the Judicial Council investigator with the crime of usurping power and banned him from traveling, arguing that he had resumed acting as an investigator even though his hand had been stayed. Thirdly, in a blatant usurpation of the Judicial Council investigator’s powers, Oueidat released all the detainees. Because of all these measures, which threatened the Judicial Council investigator’s personal safety and ability to take any investigative measures, the investigator decided to defer the sessions for questioning the defendants until the charges against him are dropped.
Subsequently, on the third anniversary of the blast, and while expressing our deep concern about truth and justice being lost as the political forces engross themselves in developing and spreading techniques of impunity, the Independence of the Judiciary Coalition (IJC) puts the following stances on the record:
Condemnation of the Public Authorities’ Refusal to Take Any Stance to Curb the Coup’s Effects
Despite its gravity, the coup clearly enjoyed broad acceptance among the dominant political forces and the security agencies, which were complicit in it one way or another. Not the caretaker government’s minister of justice, nor the Judicial Inspection Authority, nor the Supreme Judicial Council took any practical step to protect the Judicial Council investigator from Oueidat’s subversive and retaliatory actions, even though several August 4 victims filed criminal and disciplinary complaints against him via the Beirut Bar Association’s office for representing blast victims. Hence, more than six months after the complaint against Bitar was filed, it remains standing, and the investigation consequently remains obstructed – not to mention the government’s refusal to dismiss Oueidat and appoint a replacement cassation public prosecutor.
Condemnation of the Legislature’s Refusal to Present Any Solutions to Curb the Obstructionist Practices and Mechanisms
As previously explained, the charge against the Judicial Council investigator is that he used legal interpretation to overcome the obstruction of his work, extending for over a year, through the filing of dozens of disqualification and maljudging cases against him and the obstruction of these cases’ examination via the shutdown of the Full Bench of the Court of Cassation. These techniques of obstruction pioneered by the forces opposed to the port investigation have become a tool that any defendants can use in any case to obstruct the investigations into them, thereby threatening the authority of the entire judiciary. In fact, they have been used in cases involving financial crimes and judicial efforts to apply the law on lifting banking secrecy, corruption cases such as the case concerning the Traffic and Vehicles Management Authority, and land disputes such as the recent Qornet al-Sawda case. Remarkably, even though several MPs, in cooperation with the IJC, presented two expedited bills amending trial procedure articles (Article 751 of the Code of Civil Procedure and Article 52 of the Code of Criminal Procedure) to prevent them from being abused, two legislative sessions have since been held without these bills on their agendas. This dereliction can only be understood as another attack on the judiciary by the political authority.
Condemnation of the Administration and Justice Committee’s Failure to Complete Laws Guaranteeing the Independence of the Judicial and Administrative Judiciaries Within Reasonable Timeframes
Tragically, while studying the bill on the independence of the judicial judiciary, Parliament’s Administrative and Justice Committee neglected all the Venice Commission’s recommendations intended to ensure that judicial independence is achieved. In late 2021, the committee doubled down on its bill and all its loopholes negating its purpose and breaches of international standards. Similarly, the committee is studying the bill on the independence of the administrative judiciary at a glacial pace entirely inconsistent with the urgency of this reform.
While pointing out that sovereignty is not merely a stance but an accomplishment achieved through planning, legislation, and institution-building and that, from this angle, continuing to obstruct and subjugate the judiciary constitutes an abandonment of this sovereignty and a signal to the victims that there is no hope of justice from the nation (a signal that has pushed them to call for international fact-finding committees and resort to foreign national courts),
The IJC defines its demands as follows:
1- Work immediately to nullify the effects of the coup against the Judicial Council investigator, especially in terms of dropping the charges of usurping power leveled against him. The special investigator appointed for the complaint should dismiss it, whether or not the cassation public prosecutor withdraws it.
2- Initiate disciplinary proceedings against Cassation Public Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat for the grave violations committed in the course of the coup.
3- Place the two expedited bills amending Article 751 of the Code of Civil Procedure and Article 52 of the Code of Criminal Procedure on the agenda of a forthcoming legislative session and adopt them in order to stop the practices obstructing justice in the port case and any other socially important case.
4- Enable the Judicial Council investigator to continue his investigations free of interference, abuse, and threats and to seek assistance from any international bodies or competent judicial bodies under the international treaties and judicial cooperation agreements.
5- Commit to building national judicial sovereignty by completing the two bills on the independence of the judicial and administrative judiciaries as soon as possible and in accordance with the Venice Commission’s recommendations and international standards of judicial independence.
6- Rally around and stand in solidarity with the port blast victims and their families to ensure their rights to justice and restitution and society’s right to truth.