More than two years since the huge explosion that leveled Beirut's port and horrified the world, a blazing row has seen Lebanon's leading judges file charges against each other and all suspects in the stalled investigation.
The surprise moves came after Tarek Bitar, the judge tasked with investigating the blast, suddenly resumed his work. The probe was stalled for more than a year due to opposition from the country's political factions, which have shown no interest in delivering justice for the 202 killed and hundreds more maimed.
Bitar s first act was to bring charges against Lebanon's most senior prosecutor, two intelligence chiefs and a number of other officials for obstructing justice. The move was unprecedented in Lebanon, where senior officials have been largely untouchable in the post-civil war years and the country's leaders even further off-limits.
The response of the prosecutor general, Ghassan Oueidat, was swift. On Wednesday he ordered the release of all suspects detained after the explosion, an array of functionaries who had worked at the port, well below the political masters who had carved it into fiefdoms that had enriched each major faction in Lebanon.
The developments have horrified family members of people killed in the explosion of one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts, which have been fruitlessly demanding justice, and added to claims that an internal probe could never shed light on how the stockpile of ammonium nitrate arrived at the port, nor bring those responsible to account.
Bitar's tactics have moved from chipping away at witnesses to indicting the entire system, which has acted as a protectorate for the interests of stakeholders, security officials, the military, political groups and the powerful non-state actor, Hezbollah, which has worked against Bitar. The symbolism remains worthwhile in the absence of a path to real justice, according to some Lebanese.
This country is broken, and this is definitive proof, said Charbel Abboud, a relative of a resident who was injured near the port. The judges will fight each other, and nothing will happen. What other country would we be so far away from justice? Without any local political backing, Bitar is challenging an untouchable political class over its role in the port blast, said Mohanad Hage Ali, communications director at Carnegie Middle East Center, who analyzes political, socioeconomic and security issues in the Middle East and north Africa. His challenge could inspire others, and embarrass Hezbollah, which is spearheading the counterattack. The move of Bitar will not lead to justice, but charging senior officials across the board has clear implications. Others are not so sure. Maryam Dawood, a Beirut resident, said it doesn't change a thing. There is no way to arrest intelligence chiefs and judges. This is just a poke in the ribs. Justice and Lebanon are doomed to be estranged.