BEIRUT (AP) – Hezbollah on Wednesday accused the United States of interfering in Lebanon’s investigation into last year’s massive explosion in the port of Beirut, with the aim of implicating the militant group and its allies.
Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadallah’s response to criticism from a State Department spokesperson comes amid a developing crisis that is engulfing the national investigation. The investigation was temporarily suspended on Tuesday due to legal challenges by the defendants against Senior Investigating Judge Tarek Bitar.
The US official’s comments are a “further violation of the sovereignty of Lebanon” which exposes “the extent of the interference aimed at controlling and directing the investigation,” Fadallah said.
Hezbollah’s comments are the first to directly accuse Washington of interfering and dictating the conduct of the port investigation. They report an escalation of a campaign against the 46-year-old judge who rights groups say is aimed at discrediting the investigation.
Bitar is the second judge to investigate what blew up thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the Port of Beirut for years. It has come under heavy criticism from Lebanese politicians for what they say is a politicized and biased line of inquiry. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has called for Bitar’s replacement.
State Department spokesman Ned Price criticized Nasrallah’s comments on Tuesday evening and said Washington supports Lebanon’s judicial independence.
“Judges must be free from threats and intimidation, including (from Hezbollah),” Price said. “We have long known that terrorism and illicit Hezbollah activities threaten the security, stability and sovereignty of Lebanon.
Price accused Hezbollah of being “more concerned with its own interests and those of its boss, Iran, than the best interests of the Lebanese people.”
Fadallah accused Washington of imposing “dictates aimed at obstructing justice and covering up the truth” against segments of the population whom the United States considers enemies.
Bitar has issued two arrest warrants against former government officials, a rare move against entrenched political elites in Lebanon, where impunity has prevailed for decades. The former officials are still at large.
Hezbollah and other political groups have accused Bitar of targeting some former senior government officials, most allied with Hezbollah, and not others. None of the Hezbollah officials have so far been charged in the 14-month-old investigation.
Hezbollah’s call to remove Bitar has sparked a crisis within the newly formed Lebanese government. Hezbollah allies in the Cabinet have called for urgent government action against the judge – a call seen by most as interference in court affairs.
A government minister threatened that street protests or cabinet walkouts could take place if there were no measures to replace Bitar. A Cabinet meeting was expected later Wednesday.
Lebanon has not had a fully functioning government for over a year amid political haggling over its composition. The new government just took office last month as Lebanon sinks deeper and deeper into an unprecedented economic and energy crisis.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.