Beirut port blast: Victims’ families protest at probe’s suspension

image source, Reutersimage caption, The protesters gathered outside the Palace of Justice, many carrying photos of their relatives

Families of the victims of last year's Beirut port explosion have protested against the suspension of the Lebanese investigation into the disaster.

Hundreds of people gathered in the city to demand that the lead judge, Tarek Bitar, be allowed to resume his work.

He had to stop on Monday after a former minister wanted for questioning filed a complaint that accused him of bias.

No-one has yet been held accountable for the August 2020 blast, which killed 219 people and injured 7,000 others.

A fire triggered the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a combustible chemical widely used as agricultural fertiliser, that had been stored unsafely in a port warehouse for almost six years.

Senior officials were aware of the material's existence and the danger it posed but failed to remove, secure or destroy it.

media caption, One year on from the Beirut blast

The BBC's Carine Torbey in Beirut says that for more than a year, relatives of the victims have regularly held rallies to demand justice.

But now, our correspondent adds, they fear that the whole investigation could be compromised.

"If there's no justice, then there's no country," Hiam Bekaai, whose son Ahmad was killed in the explosion, told the BBC.

This is the second time that the probe has been suspended in response to complaints from high-profile politicians summoned for questioning.

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Lebanon's top court removed the first lead judge earlier this year after he charged with negligence the prime minster at the time of the explosion, Hassan Diab, former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, and former public works ministers Youssef Finyanus and Ghazi Zaiter.

The four men denied any wrongdoing and refused to be questioned as suspects, accusing the judge of overstepping his powers.

image source, Reutersimage caption, One banner read: "We will not forget". Another warned politicians: "You won't kill us twice"

Now, Judge Bitar is facing a similar complaint from another politician wanted for questioning on suspicion of negligence, former interior minister Nohad Machnouk, and must stop his work until the court rules on it.

Victims' relatives allege that powerful politicians are obstructing justice and intimidating Judge Bitar.

So far, our correspondent says, he has not been able to interrogate any politician in a case that increasingly seems to polarise public opinion in a country with a long history of impunity.

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