By Laila Bassam and Maha El Dahan
BEIRUT (Reuters) -Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called on Monday for the replacement of the lead investigator into the deadly Beirut port blast, saying he was biased and politicised, in his strongest criticism of the official since his appointment.
“The targeting is clear, you are picking certain officials and certain people. The bias is clear,” he said in televised comments, adding that Judge Tarek Bitar would never reach the truth if he continues with the probe.
Nasrallah openly called for Bitar’s replacement, saying he wanted a judge that was “transparent”.
Bitar is not permitted to speak to the media in his capacity as an investigating judge.
The investigation into the Aug. 4, 2020, explosion, one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in history, has made little headway amid a campaign against Bitar and pushback from powerful Lebanese factions.
The blast killed over 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed large swathes of the capital, but no top official has been held accountable.
Wafik Safa, a senior official in the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah, warned Bitar last month the group would remove him from the inquiry, according to a journalist and a judicial source.
The justice minister and judiciary are following up on the warning.
Hezbollah has become one of the most powerful political players in Lebanon in recent years.
Bitar’s efforts to question former and current state officials, including the prime minister at the time of the blast, former ministers and senior security officials on suspicion of negligence have been repeatedly blocked.
Legal complaints have also been filed questioning his impartiality. The probe was frozen for a week earlier this month while one such complaint, eventually rejected by the court, was considered.
Bitar has scheduled sessions to question former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeiter this week, both allies of Hezbollah, but they are not expected to appear.
While Bitar has sought to question several politicians who are allied to the group, he has not sought to question any members of Hezbollah itself.
Bitar is the second judge whose investigation has been stymied by powerful factions in Lebanon, where a lack of high-level accountability is blamed for systemic corruption, governing gridlock and economic meltdown.
His predecessor, Fadi Sawan, was removed in February by a Lebanese court after a complaint filed against him by a former official he had charged with negligence.
(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Maha El Dahan; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Peter Cooney)