From left to right: the president of the Banking Association, Salim Sfeir, the governor of the BDL, Riad Salamé, the outgoing Minister of Finance, Ali Hassan Khalil, and the president of the parliamentary finance committee, Ibrahim Kanaan, at the Parliament on December 26, 2019. ANI Photo

The banking party and its judicial relays facing the prosecutor of Mount Lebanon

On social networks, attacks against Ghada Aoun often fly very low. People laughed at her hair, her infirmity, her celibacy, calling her “lame”, “disheveled”, “old maid”, etc. Yet no judge has ever been required to be a pin-up spending half of her time at the hairdresser because her hair is rebellious; nor does the law allow discrimination against women or the disabled. Especially when it comes to a disabled woman who, appointed judge in 1981 by President Élias Sarkis, managed to win through all political regimes until arriving, in 2017, to occupy the considerable post of prosecutor near the Court of Appeal of Mount Lebanon.

One would think that such vile reviews indicate a lack of arguments. That is true. But Ghada Aoun is also accused by some of not being in control of all her cases and of not respecting procedures. This is what the Attorney General Ghassan Oueidate pointed out to her when she instituted proceedings for illegal enrichment on October 23, 2019 against the former Prime Minister Najib Mikati (leader of the Azem movement), his brother Taha, and their respective sons. Maher and Azmi, as well as Audi Bank, the country’s largest bank, of which Mikati became a shareholder in early 2010. The Mikati brothers are the two richest men in Lebanon according to the Forbes ranking. Between 2010 and 2013, they and their sons had, through companies owned by them, taken advantage of nine state-subsidized home loans totaling $ 14 million, part of which was granted when Najib Mikati was prime minister. (2011-2014). These loans, embezzled by the two billionaires, should have gone to people with limited incomes that through these loans, the Lebanese state wanted to help access housing. Mr. Mikati would have taken the opportunity to acquire, on his own, dozens of apartments.

The following October 30, Ghada Aoun was subject to disciplinary sanctions imposed by the Attorney General at the Court of Cassassion Ghassan Oueidate, for “disciplinary offenses against the legal rules and discretion” in force in the judiciary. Judge Oueidate simply withdrew the case from Ghada Aoun, not without declaring that the judiciary pursued corruption when it found it. And yet, the Mikati affair was not pursued, and it was, on the contrary, hushed up. Mr. Mikati not having had to return this money taken from the poor, nor to pay a fine as a result, had that year an increase in fortune of 540 million dollars (Forbes [1] ).

Speaking of corruption and justice, it should be remembered that when he was an investigative judge in Beirut, Mr. Ghassan Oueidate did not indict Mr. Antoun Sehnaoui in the case of the “White House” nightclub. where, in 2010, the latter’s bodyguards opened fire and injured several people. Oueidate also pronounced in 2017 a dismissal in favor of the company of collection and transport of waste Sukleen, and of the company of treatment and storage of waste Sukomi, accused of embezzling public funds.

By opening the file of the illegal enrichment of the Mikati, Ghada Aoun could not but be welcomed by public opinion in Lebanon, a few weeks after the start of the protest movement of October 17, 2019, which demanded accountability from politicians whose a party is accused of financial crimes: embezzlement of public funds, corruption and illicit enrichment. It is indeed the first time that a judge has attacked directly conflicts of interest between banks and many politicians and the media.

Because in Lebanon, justice is not independent of political power. The Attorney General at the Court of Cassation is the head of the criminal judiciary, and he is more powerful than the Minister of Justice. And he is necessarily politicized, since he is appointed by the political power. More specifically, as a Sunni, he is appointed by the Sunni Prime Minister, who was then Saad Hariri (the leader of the Current of the Future). It is therefore obligatorily submitted to him, and Hariri being Mikati’s political ally, it was necessary to preserve Mikati’s property by withdrawing the case from Ghada Aoun, otherwise there would be investigations into the affairs of the property of former Prime Ministers Hariri , Siniora, Salam, and the Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri. Etc.

A bill for the independence of the judiciary exists, but it is sleeping in the drawers of Parliament, Nabih Berri refusing to put this bill on the agenda to put it to a vote. Berri is indeed one of the most prominent figures in a coalition called in Lebanon “the party of the Banks”, that is to say those which defend the interests of the banks and of the big depositors of which they themselves make. party, against attempts to reform the government. Berri has paralyzed all these attempts at reform through his advisor Ghazi Wazni, whom he imposed as Minister of Finance, and whom he has repeatedly gone so far as to contradict or ridicule in public, forcing him to walk. back every time he prepared a reform bill. He forced him to impose the refusal of the audit firm Kroll, and to delay the contract of the company Alvarez and Marsall, in particular by inserting a clause prohibiting the Bank of Lebanon (BDL) to break the banking secrecy in its favor. It’s been over a year, and the forensic audit has still not been carried out because of these blockages, the Minister of Finance being the sole master of his ministry in charge of the Treasury and the management of public finances.

Berri also had him withdraw the capital control bill that Wazni himself had prepared and presented. However, this project should have passed in October 2019, because it would have blocked the flight of dollars out of the country, and prevented the banks themselves from imposing capital controls depriving savers of half of their assets, of all their dollars. , which were only returned to them in the form of Lebanese pounds, in a trickle manner, and, despite the maintenance of the “peg”, that is to say the official fixed parity (of 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar), at an official exchange rate at the rate of 3,900 LL / dollar (whereas the exchange rate fixed by the black market is currently above 12,000 LL / dollar, which corresponds to a de facto devaluation and therefore to a discount – “haircut” – for depositors and which leads to social downgrading of the Lebanese with a strong loss of their purchasing power).

But in Lebanon, the banks themselves are sometimes in serious conflict of interest with political power. Thus, Mikati was a shareholder of Bank Audi and Bank Saradar, on the board of directors of which his group is still represented. Saad Hariri is a shareholder of the Banque de la Méditerranée. Fouad Siniora, Minister of Finance, was director of the same bank, before becoming Prime Minister. Raya Hassan passed directly from the post of Minister of the Interior to that of President of the Board of Directors of the Bank of the Mediterranean as well. The vice-president of the Parliament Élie Ferzli, is a shareholder of IBL (Intercontinental Bank of Lebanon). Marwan Hamadé, principal lieutenant of Walid Joumblatt (leader of the Progressive Socialist Party), is a member of the board of directors of Crédit Libanais [2] . Anwar el-Khalil, member of Nabih Berri’s Amal movement, is also a board member of Bank of Beirut [3] .

And that’s the tip of the iceberg, since politicians often have self-interest relationships with banks through family members. In addition, being important clients, they benefit from preferential interest rates, and they were able to get their fortune out of the country in October 2019, when small savers were not allowed to dispose of their money.

Knowing all these conflicts of interest and the corruption that reigns in Lebanon, we realize the formidable caste solidarity that can be formed between politicians, bankers, media, and the judiciary, when the interests of one of them are threatened.

After her investigation into Najib Mikati and Bank Audi was blocked, Judge Ghada Aoun embarked on an even larger politico-financial investigation: the Sonatrach affair. It was she who carried out this investigation into the adulterated fuel and issued the arrest warrants.

Recently, the prosecutor took up complaints (in particular from associations of depositors) targeting personalities from the Banking Party:

– Riad Salamé the governor of the BDL,

– Antoun Sehnaoui, boss and shareholder of the SGBL bank, and ally of Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces Party,

– Michel Mecattaf, broker and main carrier of foreign currencies (from and to Lebanon, mainly on behalf of banks).

Mecattaf is Amine Gemayel’s ex-son-in-law. He is also a former cadre of the Kataëb party, and he was a candidate for the Lebanese Forces Party list in the 2018 legislative elections in Metn-Nord. He is also the owner of the newspaper Nida ‘al-Watan, which is very hostile to the presidential camp.

Judge Ghada Aoun’s recent investigative methods are open to criticism: a heavy-handed and publicized search under the escort of bodyguards transformed into legal auxiliaries, with, in the annex, a demonstration of supporters. But these methods so much criticized were what won him the sympathy of the poor. We saw a demonstration of Tripolitans chanting: “We are all Ghada Aoun. “, And a portrait of Saad Hariri was torn off to make way for a poster saying,” We are all Ghada Aoun. »It should be noted that the Mikati that Ghada Aoun had pinned down in a case of illegal enrichment, are from Tripoli, the city where there are the poorest poorest of Lebanon, and rich politicians who become even richer when they arrive. in power. Hence the identification of these poor people with anyone daring to sue these billionaires.

Judge Ghada Aoun is accused by her detractors of being selective, but it is clear that she strikes everywhere; She thus arrested the director general of Petroleum at the Ministry of Energy and Water, Aurore Feghali, close to Gébran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement (CPL) and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun.

It has just followed two complaints concerning al-Qard al-Hassan (the financial body affiliated with Hezbollah and registered with the Ministry of the Interior as an association, which would violate articles 200 and 206 of the Currency Code. and credit which requires for-profit legal entities with credit activities the registration with the BDL) and the import (contrary to the standards and rules set by the World Health Organization) of Iranian biosimilar drugs ( not registered according to legal and administrative procedures since they have not been previously tested in a reference laboratory and therefore their composition and quality are not known) drugs presented by two lawyers including the son of the former MP for Batroun Boutros Harb, rival of MP for Batroun Gébran Bassil.

After receiving a letter from Riad Salamé on March 31, Mr. Ghassan Oueidate decided to put Ms. Ghada Aoun aside by depriving her of the right to judge financial and other cases. The Judges’ Club, an association of independent magistrates, published a press release denouncing an attempt by the governor of the BDL to muzzle justice. Nizar Saghieh, director of the NGO Legal Agenda, close to civil society, even accused Judge Ghassan Oueidate of covering up corruption and protecting the “strong” by blocking Ghada Aoun’s investigation, a bit like he had done. following complaints against banks that impose capital controls outside the legislative framework and are not subject to criminal prosecution.

Judge Ghassan Oueidate even tried to have demonstrators tried before the military court despite empty cases. He also dismissed on March 29 a request for the opening of a judicial investigation on the importation of Iranian biosimilar drugs.

It is therefore through Judge Ghassan Oueidate that the Banking Party is trying to sideline Judge Ghada Aoun. In the meantime, the choice is between the investigations of Judge Ghada Aoun and a status quo suitable for the Banking Party which relies on Judge Ghassan Oueidate. This legal crisis occurs in a tense context between Michel Aoun on the one hand and Saad Hariri and Nabih Berri on the other both on the question of the formation of the government (supposed to be formed by the first and the second in partnership) as on the BDL forensic audit requested by the President, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Without carrying out this forensic audit and the reforms contained in the plan of the government and the Lazard investment bank (which provided for a distribution of losses between the State, the BDL, the shareholders of the banks and the major depositors), the Lebanon will not get help from the latter.

And the situation is getting bogged down day by day.


[1] https://www.forbesmiddleeast.com/lists/meet-2021s-arab-billionaires/najib-mikati/

[2] Led by Joseph Torbey, long-time president of the Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL).

[3] The bank headed by Sélim Sfeir, president of the ABL.

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