Hanna Saleh

Between Bassam al-Sheikh and the Magnitsky Act

For weeks, Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein did not believe that his savings and life’s work had disappeared. He trusted the authorities and the “the Lira is fine” propaganda campaign. He deposited the money he had worked 20 years to save in the bank that used to welcome him kindly! However, after the crisis, the bank closed its doors in his face, and his acquaintances at the bank couldn’t recognize him anymore.

Banks are usually robbed by professional gangs, but in Lebanon, the depositor Bassam al-Sheikh stormed a bank and held its employees as hostages to retrieve some of the money that the bank had “robbed” from him(!) as they have done 1.5 million other Lebanese citizens who had deposited over 100 billion dollars in the bank! In the blink of an eye, the banks turned their formerly financially secure depositors into paupers.

Surrounding the security forces who had surrounded the bank, citizens flocked to the scene demanding that Bassam receive his deposit in full. The crowd posed a worrying question to the authoritarians imposing their control over the country: Why did this operation take so long? The first one launched by Abdallah al-Sai came in January, and he left the bank with his deposit, so why were his actions not copied on a wider scale? Where will we find ourselves once such attacks eventually become commonplace in a country whose “elites,” reassured by the rifles of Hezbollah’s statelet protecting them, have turned their backs on the people?

The attention of the Lebanese turned to the citizen who stormed the bank to “steal” what had been available of his deposit, taking justice into his own hands after the law, ethics and politics were brought down by our rulers whom the World Bank calls “elites”... until the news of a judicial decision to “temporarily seize" property worth 100 billion Lebanese pounds owned by Lebanese Deputy Ali Hassan Khalil! These properties were seized after a complaint was filed by the Beirut Bar Association on behalf of the families of the victims of the port blast. The aim is to ensure that their clients can receive their dues if the verdict is issued in their favor after he had arbitrarily used his rights by filing complaints intended to obstruct the investigation led by Judge Tarek Bitar, who had charged Khalil and others with “probable intent murder” in relation to the port blast!

The valuation of Khalil’s properties drew attention, begging the question: “Where did you get it from?” Indeed, the documents showed that all the properties, except one, had been purchased after he became a deputy and was appointed minister! What we know for sure is that Deputy Khalil, who has been sanctioned by the US Treasury under the Magnitsky Act for enabling Hezbollah front institutions to obtain large financial projects, cannot claim that his wealth was “self-made!”

The Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein incident and the revelations regarding Khalil’s wealth coincided with the issuance of a dangerous World Bank report about the dramatic collapse in Lebanon entitled “Ponzi Finance?.” “Public finance in post-civil war Lebanon has been an instrument for systematic capture of the country’s resources,” allowing for “elite capture of state resources for private gains!” Because the country did away with constraints on fiscal policy and began using dollar deposits, “the weakening of public service delivery was, therefore, a conscious effort made to benefit the very few at the expense of the Lebanese people… putting in danger the social contract.”

There are real people, whom the October revolution calls “all of them,” behind this scheme and the financial crimes that have impoverished the Lebanese and turned them into a nation of paupers after the state’s resources were looted and shared between the “parallel economy” of Hezbollah’s statelet and the other parties to the regime, with portions of the deposits squandered to finance the smuggling from which the cartels, Hezbollah, and the militias of the Syrian regime enriched themselves.

The looting began over 30 years ago with the decision to peg the Lira to the dollar, and it was exacerbated by the current account deficits that began in 2011 and were financed by the depositors’ money. While former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora revealed that the banks have been bankrupt since 2015, a circular issued by Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh called on bank owners to increase their capital from the money they transferred abroad starting in 2017, and the Lebanese Judges Associations raised decried this “gangrene” on the third day of the revolution that began on October 17, 2019.

Building on law 144/2015, which is in line with the United Nations Decision to curb money laundering and smuggling, the Lebanese Judges Association demanded that officials be barred from leaving the country, be stripped of their immunity, and be deprived of their right to banking secrecy, as well as demanding that the accounts of everyone who had been involved in public affairs be made public.” This, the Association’s statement added, was to be followed by a transparent investigation and a fair trial meant to allow us to retrieve the public funds that had been looted, and it also demanded the seizure of officials’ funds and that they and their well-known contractors be banned from transferring funds abroad. It then becomes more specific, demanding that the accounts of presidents, ministers, representatives, first-grade public sector employees, judges and officers be disclosed…

But their demands were ignored, with politicians offering sweet nothings about the sanctity of deposits. No capital control law was issued, and the banks closed to allow those mentioned in the statement to transfer funds abroad!

According to a website called WikiLeaks Lebanon, two billion and 400 million dollars were transferred abroad by only 13 political and banking personalities, not including Riad Salameh, who was prosecuted before the European courts on charges of money laundering and illicit enrichment, with 300 million dollars and many real estate assets of his in France, Germany and Switzerland also seized.

The looted money, like the deposits, is in the hands of the mafioso alliance and the cartel of bankers who have sent tens of billions “offshore,” with some of it also used to build the real estate portfolios of these politicians and bankers. However, none of it will be retrieved without a changed balance of power that allows for the crystallization of a political alternative to the “Ammonium regime” to crystalize. It will be a difficult, exhausting task, but it is the only pathway for an independent authority trusted by the people that gives them back the power, ensures the judiciary’s independence, and opens the door to fair and transparent accountability.

The factions that obstructed the investigation into the port crime did so because they knew that revealing the truth and achieving justice would end the era of impunity and put the guilty behind bars! They know that any concession would open the door to the emergence of a “historic bloc” that can bring the constitution into effect and set Lebanon on a course for change. This chain of events would render the links between domestic players and foreign powers too weak to deprive the Lebanese of victory.