The Minister of Justice Henri Khoury joined the act to the word. He had indeed announced on Tuesday, after a meeting with the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun, that a magistrate would be appointed shortly to look into the “urgent” questions related to the investigation into the double explosion at the port of Beirut ( August 4, 2020), in particular referring to the fate of the detainees in this case. L’Orient-Le Jour has learned from concordant judicial sources that it has taken this step, having proposed a few days ago to the Superior Council of the Judiciary (CSM) the name of Samaranda Nassar, 1st investigating judge of Lebanon- North, to this function. Judge Nassar is reputed to be close to the Aounist camp, like the Minister of Justice himself. The latter’s approach comes in the midst of an outcry in legal circles, which stigmatize the principle of appointing a substitute judge, adopted on September 5 by the CSM on the proposal of Mr. Khoury, while the law enacts the appointment of a sole investigating judge at the Court of Justice. Tarek Bitar, in charge of the investigation, still holds this position. On the other hand, a source close to the CSM indicates to L’OLJ that, for this judicial body, a judge who would be appointed in this context would not be a substitute, that is to say would not replace the titular judge. , but would only be responsible for well-defined questions.
However, for the observers, the decision in principle taken by the CSM had taken place following pressure exerted by the Aounist camp: the same day, a delegation of deputies from this group had gone to see its president, Souheil Abboud, to urge him to hasten the course of justice. The meeting followed a sit-in organized in front of the Beirut Palace of Justice by relatives of detainees, including the director of customs, Badri Daher, close to the Aounist camp. At the same time, the vice-president of Parliament, Elias Bou Saab, also close to the head of state, had attributed to the CSM a share of responsibility in the freezing of the investigation.
Divisions within the CSM?
As things stand, all that is needed is the approval of the CSM for the proposal to appoint Judge Samaranda Nassar to materialize. However, according to an informed judicial source, no decision to this effect has been taken to date, due to a division on this subject within the Council. Of the ten members that make it up, only six sit on it to discuss the issue. It is that the head of the cassation prosecution, Ghassan Oueidate, had recused himself from the case, because of his relationship with the deputy Ghazi Zeaïter, implicated by judge Bitar. The head of the Judicial Inspectorate, Bourkan Saad, who was part of the CSM, recently retired. The two remaining positions, reserved for presidents of chambers of the Court of Cassation, could not be filled, due to retirements who have still not been replaced. Besides Mr. Oueidate, the members of the CSM are Souheil Abboud, as well as Afif Hakim, Dany Chebli, Mireille Haddad, Elias Richa and Habib Mezher. These last four would have spoken for the appointment of Ms. Nassar, while the first two would have opposed it. A majority of votes is enough, but the discussions continue in a desire to issue a unanimous decision, according to information obtained by our newspaper. A source close to the CSM affirms in this regard that Souheil Abboud is “above all attached, among other things, to the criteria of neutrality”. Contacted, a high-ranking magistrate believes, on condition of anonymity, that Judge Nassar was approached because “the minister and the camp he represents are confident in his decisions”. “They know that she would be sensitive to their requests”, he goes so far as to say, recalling that “the main objective of the decision is to release the incarcerated people, in particular those who are close to them”. Samaranda Nassar is reputed to be close to the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (CPL), Gebran Bassil, he adds.
It remains that Ms. Nassar has a long experience in the criminal field, necessary to settle the questions which would be entrusted to her, if she were appointed. She could not be reached yesterday to comment on the information on her possible appointment. We also tried unsuccessfully to contact the Minister of Justice.
A designation after more than one refusal
According to a source informed of the file, the name of the magistrate would have been suggested among several others, including Fadi Onaïssi, president of the Court of Appeal of North Lebanon and previously examining magistrate of Beirut. He would have refused to take charge of the proposed post, as well as the first investigating judge of Mount Lebanon Nicolas Mansour, who considers that the appointment of a substitute judge is inappropriate, affirms this source. Mr. Mansour wonders how a judge other than Tarek Bitar could deal with requests for release, when he has no knowledge of the investigation, believing that if the designated judge were to consult the file, he would violate the secrecy of the investigations, she continues. At the same time, still according to this source, Judge Mansour believes that Tarek Bitar could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice if he refused the request to entrust part of the case to the appointed judge. But Mr. Bitar would not agree to voluntarily cede his file, as a senior magistrate had already affirmed on a previous occasion. In the ranks of lawyers, we cling to the wish to see the CSM reconsider its decision. The President of Beirut, Nader Gaspard, urged the judicial body on Wednesday to refrain from appointing a new judge. In a letter he sent to him, he notably indicated that the freezing of Tarek Bitar’s investigation is due to legal appeals, which have not been decided due to a blockage of appointments within the plenary assembly. of the Court of Cassation, which has jurisdiction over these issues. Mr. Gaspard also deplored that the “urgent questions” invoked by the Minister of Justice are not defined. “Vagueness would push the judge who would be appointed to interpret his prerogatives extensively,” he warns.
When questioned, the lawyer Youssef Lahoud, member of the prosecution office within the Beirut Bar Association, believes that the appointment of a substitute magistrate is likely to be the subject of an appeal before the Council of ‘State.
“Faced with the illegality of such a decision, we must expect rapid developments,” he says, without wanting to give further details. Another lawyer points out that if a substitute judge were to be appointed, his action could be paralyzed by the same legal means abused by the officials in question to paralyze the action of Tarek Bitar.
The anger of the relatives of victims
For their part, the families of the victims intend to confront the appointment of a substitute judge. “We will face anyone who politicizes and obstructs the file,” reveals Mariana Fodoulian, sister of Gaïa, a victim of the disaster. While not wishing to indicate the procedure that the parents of the victims intend to follow if a judge is appointed, she recalls the sit-in they had organized in front of the home of the Minister of Justice, in Hazmieh, two days after the decision of the CSM to adopt the latter’s proposal. “They want to choose a substitute, rather than allowing the judge in place to restart his investigation,” she is indignant. “They invoke human rights in reference to the rights of detainees. Where were the human rights when the ammonium nitrate at the origin of the tragedy entered the port, was stored there for many years and exploded? Laments Mariana Fodoulian. “We will not let them carry out their political agendas,” she insists, accusing the Aounist camp of “wanting to ensure the release of Badri Daher before the end of President Aoun’s mandate”, which expires on October 31.
The Minister of Justice Henri Khoury joined the act to the word. He had indeed announced on Tuesday, after a meeting with the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun, that a magistrate would be appointed shortly to look into the “urgent” questions related to the investigation into the double explosion at the port of Beirut ( August 4, 2020), alluding in particular to the fate of…