Judge Bitar resumes Beirut blast probe; unwilling to budge

The blast on Aug. 4, 2020, killed 220 and injured over 6,500 people, and destroying the Beirut waterfront and its back neighborhoods. (AFP/File)
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Updated 09 December 2021

Judge Bitar resumes Beirut blast probe; unwilling to budge

BEIRUT: The lawyers of the Beirut port explosion victims and the 17 arrested defendants fear the lawyers of the politicians accused of being involved in the crime would resort to the Court of Cassation after they exhausted their cases before the Court of Appeal.

Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the probe, had resumed his meetings on Wednesday in his office at the Justice Palace after the judiciary defied the pressures to remove him from the case.

Every setback in the investigations delays the indictment and the trials even further.

The horrific blast occurred on Aug. 4, 2020, after 1,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the Beirut port along with seized explosives exploded, killing 220 victims, injuring over 6,500 people, and destroying the Beirut waterfront and its back neighborhoods.

Bitar and his predecessor, Judge Fadi Sawan, accused former PM Hassan Diab and four former ministers, Ali Hassan Khalil, Ghazi Zeaiter, Nohad Machnouk and Youssef Finianos of being involved in the crime and charged them with “a felony of probable intent to murder and a misdemeanor of negligence because they were aware of the presence of the ammonium nitrate, and did not take measures to spare the country such a disaster.”

Director-General of State Security Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba, his counterpart at the General Security Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim and several judges have also been accused of being involved.

Bitar has not yet received the results of the simulation he conducted of the explosion in August. A security source told Arab News that security experts are still reviewing the simulation before drawing up their report and presenting it to the judge.

Bitar is yet to receive the satellite images [from the day of the explosion] that the Russian administration handed over to the Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib over a week ago. “The satellite images have been given to experts from the security forces for reviewing,” the source noted.

He downplayed the possibility of these images revealing significant details. “These satellites are always rotating, so they might not have taken any images right before or during the explosion. If these satellites were above the Beirut port following the blast, then these images are worthless to the investigation because what matters is what led to the explosion.”

The security source noted that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) asked many countries for satellite images when it was investigating the assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri, but none of the satellites had taken images right before or during the crime.

On Thursday, former minister and lawyer Rachid Derbas, representing Diab, submitted formal pleas before Bitar, regarding the jurisdiction of the Judicial Council and the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers.

A judicial source told Arab News that all the arrests and charges made by Bitar “were based on acts that led to the explosion, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. The investigation does not focus only on the explosion. It is rather manifold; how the ship loaded with ammonium nitrate arrived in Lebanon and all the events that led to the day of the explosion. This investigation is carried out by a single judge, while such crimes usually have an integrated team to expedite things.”

He questioned why Hezbollah is suspicious of the investigation's path and is accusing Bitar of politicizing the case.

The judicial source recalled a speech Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gave in the wake of the blast, in which he said he will not provide a cover for anyone involved, no matter their sect, especially if they were Shiites, then, later on, started accusing Bitar of politicizing the investigation and targeting specific sects. “Bitar’s investigation is still ongoing and he is summoning everyone he believes the facts point to as being involved. He still has a lot of suspects he needs to question.”

Whenever Bitar takes a step forward, he stumbles over new obstacles. The source wondered: “How come the STL’s verdict did not provoke any offensive stances such as the ones Bitar is facing today?”

The judicial source believed Bitar would not step down, “otherwise, he would be admitting to all the accusations made against him.

“Bitar’s conscience is clear and he is simply doing his duty,” he said, adding: “The judiciary has to shelter Bitar, just as the military court did and imprisoned the journalist who dared to utter offensive words against the military institution.”

The ruling class is trying to evade Bitar by insisting that politicians should be tried before the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers.

Legal expert and former MP Salah Hanin had previously told Arab News: “The PM and ministers do not have immunity when they commit a criminal offense such as the port explosion crime. It subjects them to ordinary laws and to the same judiciary that exercises its authority over all citizens.”

Hanin cited Article 70 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the parliament has the right to impeach the PM and ministers for high treason or breach of their duties. “This article does not include criminal offenses; they thus must appear before the judiciary.”


Lebanon to take stance on US maritime proposal after tripartite consultations: President

Updated 03 October 2022

Lebanon to take stance on US maritime proposal after tripartite consultations: President

BEIRUT: Lebanon will take a stance on a US proposal to demarcate a contentious maritime border with Israel after consultations among the country’s top three officials, Lebanese President Michel Aoun tweeted on Monday.
Aoun is set to meet with Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri on Monday afternoon to discuss a proposal drafted by Amos Hochstein, the US official mediating indirect talks over the last year.
“Lebanon will set its position on Hochstein’s proposal in consultation with the heads of parliament and government. There will be no partnership with the Israeli side,” Aoun said.
Hoping to defuse one source of conflict between the hostile countries and prod them toward accommodation, Hochstein last week submitted a new proposal to Lebanon that would pave the way for offshore energy exploration.
The details of the 10-page draft have been kept under wraps but Lebanese officials have been optimistic. Even Iran-backed Hezbollah deemed the proposal’s submission “a very important step” on Saturday while its ally Berri described it as “positive.”
Deputy speaker Elias Bou Saab — the main Lebanese point-person for the talks — told parliamentarians on Monday that Lebanon would propose “amendments” to the latest draft.
“The devil is in the details,” said Bou Saab.
The latest draft appears to float an arrangement whereby gas would be produced by a company under a Lebanese license in the disputed Qana prospect, with Israel receiving a share of revenues.
While no company has been officially named, Lebanese officials have publicly suggested a role for TotalEnergies SE and a top Israeli official was meeting company representatives in Paris on Monday, according to a source briefed on the matter.
Israel’s energy ministry confirmed that its director-general Lior Schillat, who also heads Israel’s negotiating team, was in Paris for discussions on Monday.
TotalEnergies declined to comment.
Israel has said its own legal experts are also reviewing the draft before it can be approved.
Israeli media reported that the cabinet will meet on Thursday to approve the deal, but no session is formally scheduled.
A senior Israeli official told Reuters that it was not yet clear when the government would take that step, as it awaited word of Lebanon’s response.
“If they come back with changes — other than small, technical things — it may not be done by Thursday,” the official said.


Rights group: Israel holding 800 Palestinians without trial

Updated 03 October 2022

Rights group: Israel holding 800 Palestinians without trial

  • The number of those held in administrative detention has risen steadily this year
  • Israel says it uses administrative detention to impede attacks and restrain dangerous militants

JERUSALEM: Israel is holding nearly 800 Palestinians without trial or charge, the highest number since 2008, an Israeli rights group said Sunday.
The group, HaMoked, which regularly gathers figures from Israeli prison authorities, said that 798 Palestinians are currently being held in so-called administrative detention, a practice where the prisoners can be held for months, do not know the charges against them and are not granted access to the evidence against them.
The group said the number of those held in administrative detention has risen steadily this year, as Israel conducts nightly arrest raids in the occupied West Bank in response to a spate of attacks against Israelis earlier this year.
Israel says it uses administrative detention to impede attacks and restrain dangerous militants without revealing sensitive intelligence. Rights groups and Palestinians say it is an abusive system that denies freedom without due process, leaving some Palestinians for months or even years behind bars with no evidence against them made accessible. Some resort to life-threatening hunger strikes to draw attention to their detention, which often drives up tensions between Israel and Palestinians.
“Administrative detention should be an exceptional measure but Israel makes wholesale use of this detention without trial,” said Jessica Montell, HaMoked’s executive director. “This has to stop. If Israel cannot bring them to trial, it must release all administrative detainees.”
HaMoked said the figure was a new peak in a growing wave of administrative detentions which began last spring following a series of attacks by Palestinians against Israelis that killed 19 people. Those attacks sparked the Israeli raids that have killed some 100 Palestinians, many of them said to be militants or local youths out to protest the incursion into their cities or towns, but civilians have also died in the violence.
The Israeli military says some 1,500 Palestinians have been arrested during that time including those held in administrative detention. It says the raids are necessary to dismantle militant networks and thwart attacks against Israelis. Palestinians say the raids are aimed at maintaining Israel’s 55-year military rule over territories they want for a future state.
The raids have been met by an uptick in shooting attacks in the West Bank. On Sunday, the military said an Israeli soldier and a motorist were lightly wounded in two separate incidents.
The last time Israel held as many administrative detainees, in May 2008, also coincided with an increase in Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service did not respond to a request for comment.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and has since established some 130 settlements there, home to 500,000 settlers. The Palestinians want the territory, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip for their hoped-for independent state.


Iran’s Khamenei says protests were ‘planned’, blames US

Updated 03 October 2022

Iran’s Khamenei says protests were ‘planned’, blames US

  • Concern grew over violence at Sharif University of Technology, where riot police confronted students
  • Footage shows shooting and screaming being heard as large numbers of people run down a street at night

DUBAI/PARIS: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday protests over the death of a woman in police custody were planned and not staged by “ordinary Iranians,” in his first comments on unrest that has swept the country since Sept. 17.
In comments reported by state media, Khamenei said the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini “deeply broke my heart,” calling it a “bitter incident.”
But he said “some people had caused insecurity in the streets,” saying there had been planned “riots.” 

“This rioting was planned,” he told a cadre of police students in Tehran. “I say clearly that these riots and insecurities were designed by America and the Zionist regime, and their employees.”
He added of the protests: “Such actions are not normal, are unnatural.” 
He expressed strong backing for the security forces, saying they had faced injustice during the protests. 

Earlier, Iranian students have clashed with security forces at a top Tehran university amid the wave of unrest sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, state media and rights groups said Monday.
Kurdish Iranian Amini, 22, was pronounced dead on Sept. 16, days after she was detained for allegedly breaching rules forcing women to wear hijab headscarves and modest clothes, sparking Iran’s biggest wave of protests in almost three years.
Concern grew over violence at Sharif University of Technology overnight where, local media reported, riot police confronted hundreds of students, using tear gas and paintball and carrying weapons that shoot non-lethal steel pellets.
“Woman, life, liberty,” students shouted, as well as “students prefer death to humiliation,” the Iranian Mehr news agency reported, adding that the country’s science minister later came to speak to the students in an effort to calm the situation.
The Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights posted video apparently showing Iranian police on motorcycles pursuing running students in an underground car park and, in a separate clip, taking away detainees whose heads were covered in black cloth bags.
In other footage, shooting and screaming can be heard as large numbers of people run down a street at night, in footage AFP has not independently verified.
“Security forces have attacked Sharif University in Tehran tonight. Shooting can be heard,” IHR said in a Twitter message Sunday.
In another video clip, a crowd of people can be heard chanting: “Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid! We are all together!” IHR said the footage was taken at Shariati metro station in the capital Tehran on Sunday.
The New York-based group Center for Human Rights in Iran said it was “extremely concerned by videos coming out of Sharif University and Tehran today showing violent repression of protests + detainees being hauled away with their heads completely covered in fabric.”
Mehr news agency said that “Sharif University of Technology announced that due to recent events and the need to protect students ... all classes will be held virtually from Monday.”
Since the unrest started on September 16, dozens of protesters have been killed and more than a thousand arrested. Members of the security forces have been among those killed.


Israel military kills 2 Palestinians during West Bank raid — ministry

Updated 03 October 2022

Israel military kills 2 Palestinians during West Bank raid — ministry

  • Palestinians and rights group often accuse Israeli soldiers of using excessive force against the Palestinian people
  • Palestinians see night raids as Israel’s way of deepening its occupation of lands they want for their hoped-for state

TEL AVIV: The Israeli military shot and killed two Palestinians during a raid in the occupied West Bank early Monday, Palestinian officials said.
The military alleged that the men tried to ram their car into soldiers, a claim that could not be independently verified. Palestinians and rights group often accuse Israeli troops of using excessive force against Palestinians, who live under a 55-year military occupation with no end in sight. Israel says it follows strict rules of engagement and opens fire in life-threatening situations.
The military said soldiers were attempting to arrest a suspect in the Jalazone refugee camp near the city of Ramallah when the two Palestinians allegedly attempted to run over soldiers with their car. The soldiers opened fire on the car, the military said.
The Palestinian Civil Affairs Authority, which coordinates on civilian issues with Israel, said the military shot and killed the two men. Their identities were not immediately known.
Israel has been carrying out nightly arrest raids in the West Bank since the spring, when a spate of Palestinian attacks against Israelis killed 19 people. Israel says its operations are aimed at dismantling militant infrastructure and preventing future attacks. The Palestinians see the nightly incursions into their cities, villages and towns as Israel’s way of deepening its occupation of lands they want for their hoped-for state.
The Israeli raids have killed some 100 Palestinians, making this year the deadliest since 2016. Israel says most of those killed have been militants but local youths protesting the incursions as well as some civilians have also been killed in the violence. Hundreds have been rounded up, with many placed in so-called administrative detention, which allows Israel to hold them without trial or charge.
The raids have driven up tensions in the West Bank, with an uptick in Palestinian shooting attacks against Israelis. They have also drawn into focus the growing disillusionment among young Palestinians over the tight security coordination between Israeli and the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority, who work together to apprehend militants.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and 500,000 Jewish settlers now live in some 130 settlements and other outposts among nearly 3 Palestinians. The Palestinians want that territory, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, for their future state.


Israel military kills 2 Palestinians during West Bank raid: Ministry

Updated 03 October 2022

Israel military kills 2 Palestinians during West Bank raid: Ministry

  • The identities of the two men were not immediately known

TEL AVIV: The Israeli military shot and killed two Palestinians during a raid in the occupied West Bank early Monday, Palestinian officials said.
The military alleged that the men tried to ram their car into soldiers, a claim that could not be independently verified. Palestinians and rights group often accuse Israeli troops of using excessive force against Palestinians, who live under a 55-year military occupation with no end in sight. Israel says it follows strict rules of engagement and opens fire in life-threatening situations.
The military said soldiers were attempting to arrest a suspect in the Jalazone refugee camp near the city of Ramallah when the two Palestinians allegedly attempted to run over soldiers with their car. The soldiers opened fire on the car, the military said.
The Palestinian Civil Affairs Authority, which coordinates on civilian issues with Israel, said the military shot and killed the two men. Their identities were not immediately known.
Israel has been carrying out nightly arrest raids in the West Bank since the spring, when a spate of Palestinian attacks against Israelis killed 19 people. Israel says its operations are aimed at dismantling militant infrastructure and preventing future attacks. The Palestinians see the nightly incursions into their cities, villages and towns as Israel’s way of deepening its occupation of lands they want for their hoped-for state.
The Israeli raids have killed some 100 Palestinians, making this year the deadliest since 2016. Israel says most of those killed have been militants but local youths protesting the incursions as well as some civilians have also been killed in the violence. Hundreds have been rounded up, with many placed in so-called administrative detention, which allows Israel to hold them without trial or charge.
The raids have driven up tensions in the West Bank, with an uptick in Palestinian shooting attacks against Israelis. They have also drawn into focus the growing disillusionment among young Palestinians over the tight security coordination between Israeli and the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority, who work together to apprehend militants.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and 500,000 Jewish settlers now live in some 130 settlements and other outposts among nearly 3 Palestinians. The Palestinians want that territory, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, for their future state.

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