For nearly five hours Thursday, gunmen battled in the streets of Lebanon’s capital, using automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. At least six people were killed and dozens wounded. And all for what? Because a Middle East country not known for an independent judiciary is divided over a judge trying to hold politicians accountable for a massive disaster and bring a degree of justice that young Lebanese are demanding.
The street fighting broke out during a protest by the two main Shiite parties – Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. They want Judge Tarek Bitar removed from an investigation of a massive blast of ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut in 2020 that killed more than 200 people, wounded more than 6,000, and devastated entire neighborhoods. As the judge’s probe has drawn closer to possibly implicating those two groups, Hezbollah has vowed to remove the judge by force. A militant group supported by Iran, it has the weapons to possibly do so.
Lebanon’s judges are often manipulated by politicians. Yet Judge Bitar, widely known for his integrity, has affirmed that he will spare no effort to reach the truth about the blast. “My only concern is to satisfy God and my conscience, and to convince the victims and their families that what I do serves justice,” he said after being appointed to the case in February.
The judge’s determination may have been emboldened by large protests in 2019 that saw young people crying out to end a corrupt system of governance that divvies up power between religion-based parties. With no ties to a political party, Mr. Bitar has inspired a new hope in Lebanon. “We are now understanding – society as a whole – what it means to have a judiciary that is strong enough to face politicians,” Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer with the watchdog Legal Agenda, told the The National news site.
A Catholic, Mr. Bitar became known as an independent magistrate when he headed the Beirut Criminal Court. He also became known for trying to end the culture of impunity that protects corrupt leaders and diminishes the idea of equality before the law.
His investigation “is definitely a lot of pressure on one person, but it’s also a very important milestone in our history,” Ms. Frangieh said. “It will determine the future of our country: We continue in the cycle of impunity or we break it.”
On the day after the gunfight in Beirut, most public institutions were closed for a day of mourning. It was a tribute to those lost. Yet it also was a way to say that might should not triumph over right.