One dead, several wounded by gunfire near Beirut protest

Shots erupt near a Hezbollah-led protest calling for the removal of the judge from the Beirut blast investigation.

Beirut, Lebanon – At least one person was killed and several others injured when gunfire erupted near a Hezbollah-led protest in Beirut.

Hundreds of black-clad Hezbollah supporters and allies gathered at the Beirut Courthouse Thursday to call for the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar from the Beirut port explosion investigation, accusing him of bias and “American slave.”

Gunfire was heard from the rooftops of buildings in the nearby Tayyoune neighborhood, dispersing angry protesters.

The Lebanese army intervened and arrested one of the shooters. The identities and affiliations of the shooters remain unclear.

At least one person died and eight others were injured, a source at the Sahel General Hospital in Beirut told Al Jazeera.

The protest comes two days after Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah criticized Bitar to date. Nasrallah accused Bitar of “politically targeting” officials in his investigation.

Supporters of the Hezbollah and Amal groups chant slogans against Judge Tarek Bitar, who is investigating the deadly explosion in Beirut last year. [Hussein Malla/AP Photo]

Mehieddine Lazkani, a 29-year-old who lost his father in the blast, said he was dismayed that the protesters were demonstrating against Bitar, rather than the country’s rulers, as Lebanon’s economy continues to spiral.

The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value in two years, while an electricity crisis has paralyzed public life. Roughly three-quarters of the population live in poverty, according to the UN. Much of the Lebanese population blames the crisis on rampant corruption and financial mismanagement by Lebanese ruling parties and banks.

“It is scandalous in every sense of the word,” Mehieddine Lazki, a 29-year-old who lost his father in the port explosion, told Al Jazeera. “The Lebanese pound is at 21,000 to the dollar, there is no electricity or medicine, but do you think they should protest and replace Judge Bitar?”

Bitar has been trying for months to go after former ministers Ali Hasan Khalil, Ghazi Zeiter, Nouhad Machnouk, Youssef Finianos, as well as former Prime Minister Hasan Diab. Khalil and Zeiter belong to the Amal Movement, a Shiite party led by President Nabih Berri and closely allied with Hezbollah.

The judge has also requested to summon the Chief of General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, and the Chief of State Security, Major General Tony Saliba. However, the Ministry of the Interior and the Higher Defense Council did not grant him permission to do so.

Army soldiers stand guard near the Ministry of Justice, before a protest against Judge Tarek Bitar [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Khalil and Zeiter issued a legal complaint on Tuesday that forced Bitar to temporarily suspend the investigation, moments after issuing an arrest warrant for Khalil. The European Union and the US State Department called for the investigation to resume without hindrance.

More than 200 people were killed and more than 6,500 injured in the explosion in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, when a huge reserve of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored insecurely in the port for years, detonated.

The explosion was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded and the most destructive incident in Lebanon’s turbulent history. Entire neighborhoods of the country’s capital were destroyed and no official has been convicted.

President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Najib Mikati continue to publicly endorse Judge Bitar. Mikati said Lebanon cannot bear the removal of a second judge from the explosion investigation.

However, Hezbollah ministers Amal and some allies have lobbied the cabinet to take a formal position against Bitar.

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