Tarek Bitar, the Lebanese judge with a grudge

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By daring to charge powerful figures in the case of the devastating 2020 Beirut port explosion this week, Lebanese judge Tarek Bitar has crossed all red lines and openly challenged an entrenched ruling elite.

Bitar decided to resume his investigation after a slew of lawsuits, mainly from politicians charged in the case, forced him to stop working for 13 months.

The daring judge made Lebanese history on Monday when he indicted the country’s prosecutor.

The prosecution quickly resisted, rejecting on Tuesday the resumption of investigations and fresh charges against some of the country’s most powerful security and judicial officials.

But Bitar has refused to back down.

For part of the establishment and its supporters, Bitar is politically biased and the biggest threat to the status quo since a wave of protests against the ruling class in 2019.

To some seeking truth and justice after the deadly harbor explosion, the 47-year-old is a white knight fighting a desperate and lonely battle against a corrupt and criminal elite.

But for the relatives of more than 215 people who lost their lives when a massive batch of haphazardly stored fertilizer exploded on August 4, 2020, Bitar is the only hope.

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“He is courageous and dared to challenge the authorities who have been obstructing the investigation for two and a half years,” Cecile Roukoz, who lost her brother in the blast, told UKTN.

Bitar has rocked the boat by summoning top politicians from a range of political parties for questioning, even going so far as to issue an arrest warrant when someone failed to show up.

During his investigation, he took on some of Lebanon’s untouchable political barons, angering most of the country’s ruling elite, including the powerful Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, which has called for his resignation.

In October 2021, Hezbollah and its ally Amal had called for demonstrations to demand Bitar’s resignation, killing seven people in clashes at the rally.

– ‘incorruptible’ –

He has been under military protection ever since he began his thorny investigation.

“He knows he is being threatened, but he is not afraid,” Roukoz said. “He is one of the judges who refuse to submit to politicians.”

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The man handling the biggest case since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 is a little-known figure, never speaking to the press or even appearing in public.

The Hezbollah movement, which is blacklisted by the United States but has a presence in the Lebanese parliament, has accused Bitar of political bias and Washington of “interference” in the investigation.

But the judge’s supporters say he is independent and has managed to position himself outside a political system of patronage under which parties rely on sectarian loyalty to get their way.

“He has no known political affiliation,” said a person close to him, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

“That’s why politicians have a problem with Bitar – they have no means to put pressure on him.”

The politicians he pursues accuse him of being outspoken about the fact that it’s time to change the political class.

Throughout his career, the Christian judge from northern Lebanon has earned himself a reputation as a “sincere and incorruptible” member of the judiciary, even before his opponents.

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– ‘Strange Phenomenon’ –

Confident, some say arrogantly, he keeps to himself.

“When he was named to lead the investigation, people struggled to find a picture of him,” the person close to the judge said.

A stern character dedicated to his mission, he is rarely seen smiling.

He declines invitations to dinners, receptions, and all other social occasions for fear of being influenced in some way.

“He doesn’t even take calls from people who want to ask him for a favor,” they said.

Even some of his colleagues view this “strange phenomenon” of a judge with suspicion, claiming that a more experienced judge should have been appointed for such a sensitive investigation.

“People are disturbed by his brutality. He is something no one has seen before in the Palace of Justice,” said the same source.

He lives with his wife, a pharmacist and their two children, who are now guarded by soldiers.

After studying law at Lebanese University, he started his career in Northern Lebanon, where he established himself as an independent magistrate, before becoming head of the Beirut Criminal Court.

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