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Lebanon: UN expert concerned by interference in Beirut blast probe
05 April 2023
GENEVA (5 April 2023) – A UN expert today expressed grave concern about interference in an investigation into the 2020 port explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, including threats against the investigating judge.
UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Margaret Satterthwaite condemned the undue delays that have prevented justice for those affected by the blast.
“I am deeply disturbed by reports that former State officials and others who have been implicated in the case have disingenuously resorted to recusal proceedings and other challenging actions directed at the investigating judges appointed to examine the case,” Satterthwaite said. “This has led to the replacement of an investigating judge in February 2021, as well as several suspensions of the investigation in recent months”.
The UN expert pointed to reports that since the explosion was referred to the Lebanese Judicial Council for investigation, authorities have rejected judicial requests to lift parliamentary immunity and allow questioning of security officials. The government has also failed to execute arrest warrants against former ministers. Judge Tarek Bitar who was appointed to lead the investigation in February 2021 has faced increasing obstacles and threats to carry out his work, the Special Rapporteur said.
Satterthwaite noted that to date, no one had been tried for the August 2020 explosion, which left 218 people dead, 7000 injured and 300,000 displaced.
“The blast destroyed Beirut's port, caused extensive damage to the city, and released dangerous chemicals that can harm human health and the environment,” she said.
“On 23 January 2023, Judge Bitar announced that, after a pause, he would resume investigations into the port explosion. Two days later, he was charged with several offences, including 'usurpation of power' and a travel ban was imposed,” the expert said. “A number of motions have been filed with the intention of removing Judge Bitar from the case, and there is an ongoing campaign on television and social media to discredit him,” she said. Satterthwaite said the judge had reportedly received credible death threats and currently has military protection.
“Judge Bitar must have the security he needs to carry out his work,” Satterthwaite said. “I urge Lebanese authorities to ensure that these threats are investigated, and that the judge, his colleagues and his family are adequately protected”.
“Judges should never be threatened or subjected to criminal or disciplinary action simply for doing their job,” the UN expert said.
“The victims of the explosion and their families have been seeking justice for more than two years,” Satterthwaite said. She urged Lebanese authorities to take immediate steps to protect the independence and integrity of the investigation and ensure that those responsible for the explosion can be held accountable.
“Those affected by the blast have a fundamental right to the protection of the law and to effective remedies,” the UN expert said. “That can only happen if the independence of the judiciary is upheld.”
The Special Rapporteur has been in contact with the Government of Lebanon regarding these allegations.
*The expert:Ms. Margaret Satterthwaite, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. She was appointed as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers by the Human Rights Council in October 2022. Professor Satterthwaite is an international human rights scholar and practitioner with decades of experience in the field. She is a Professor of Clinical Law at New York University School of Law.
The Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.
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