Families of those who died in last year's deadly explosion in Beirut protested for a second day Friday and denounced the removal of a judge leading the probe into the blast.
The families released a statement saying that the appointment of a new judge would lead to a delay in the probe of the August 4 port explosion, caused by the detonation of a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the port.
"On the ill-fated date of February 18, the sound of criminal corruption echoed and its hero this time was the politicized judiciary in Lebanon," Ibrahim Hoteit, the families' spokesman, read at the protest near the justice ministry. Hoteit's brother Tharwat was killed in the explosion, which leveled large parts of Beirut, killed more than 200 people and wounded more than 6,000.
The court decision Thursday to replace Judge Fadi Sawan blew up "what remains of conscience and confidence between us and this rotten judiciary," Hoteit said.
Judge Tarek Bitar was appointed Friday by Lebanon's justice minister to lead the investigation.
After months of interviewing witnesses and documenting information from foreign governments about how the hazardous chemicals were stored in an unguarded port hangar, Sawan in December charged Hassan Diab, the caretaker prime minister, and a trio of former government ministers with criminal negligence related to the explosion.
Lebanon's highest court, the Court of Cassation, decided to remove Sawan after a complaint was filed by a group of former ministers, lawmakers and the head of Hezbollah, who say the officials charged in December had legal immunity. The court, which agreed with the complaint, said Sawan overstepped his boundaries in filing the charges.
The court also said damage to Sawan's own home resulting from the blast compromised his judicial impartiality.
Thursday's decision angered survivors and victims of last year's blast, who have accused the country's ruling elite, who have long been regarded as working together to enrich themselves, of negligence.
"The removal of Fadi Sawan from the Beirut blast case because of a complaint filed by two politicians he charged makes a mockery of justice and is an insult to the victims of the blast and the Lebanese public," said Aya Majzoub, Human Rights Watch's Lebanon researcher. "There were many serious problems with Sawan's investigation, and there may have been legitimate reasons to challenge his investigation. But the mere fact that he charged politicians is not one of them."
Mazjoub said the removal of Sawan puts the probe back at square one, as the new judge will have to begin the investigation again.