Prosecutor charges Beirut port blast judge

Lebanon's top prosecutor hs ordered the release of all suspects detained in the investigation into the deadly 2020 port blast in Beirut and filed charges against the judge leading the probe.

The move by chief prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oweidat marked another blow to the investigation, which has stalled for years.

The probe has threatened to rattle Lebanon's ruling elite, which is rife with corruption and mismanagement, and has helped push the country into an unprecedented economic meltdown.

Oweidat charged Bitar with resuming his work despite legal challenges, abusing authority, conducting work contradictory to his prerogatives, and overstepping his authority. He also issued a travel ban.

The decision came after Bitar on Monday resumed the investigation into the devastating port blast following a 13-month halt over legal challenges raised by politicians accused in the probe, including the chief prosecutor.

Bitar said Oweidat's decision to release the detainees was illegal and he could not charge a judge who had already charged him in an investigation.

Oweidat in December 2020 announced his withdrawal from any involvement in the Beirut blast investigation due to his ties to charged former minister and parliamentarian Ghazi Zeiter.

Bitar told the Associated Press that he would go on with the investigation, "even if it is going to cost me my life", and hoped there would be an indictment before the third anniversary of the blast.

Hundreds of tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilisers, detonated at Beirut Port on August 4, 2020, killing 218 people, injuring more than 6000 and damaging large parts of the Lebanese capital.

Seventeen people have been held for years in pre-trial detention pending the results of the investigation. Although they were ordered to be released, they must stay in the country.

Judge Bitar is the second investigator to lead the probe into the port blast, and has charged more than a dozen senior political, security, port and security officials.

Victims' families have endorsed Bitar, although some have lost hope in a domestic investigation and called for a UN-led probe.

They condemned Oweidat's decision and called for a protest.

"It annihilates any hope we have left," said Paul Naggear, an activist for the families of the blast victims and the father of a three-year-old who died in the blast.

Lebanon's political leadership have accused Bitar without evidence of being biased in his investigation, with some demanding his removal.