BEIRUT (AP) – Even after being pulled from an investigation into alleged financial crimes by a money transfer company, the provocative Lebanese prosecutor continued. She showed up at the company’s offices outside of Beirut with a group of supporters and a steelworker, who broke down the locked gate.
Ghada Aoun obtained data from Mecattaf Holding Company which she says will reveal the identities of the people who mowed billions of dollars out of Lebanon amid the country’s financial crisis.
The move was part of a public feud between Aoun and Lebanon’s attorney general, Ghassan Oueidat, who sidelined her from the case, claiming she overstepped her two previous raids. Their quarrel turned into scuffles between their supporters in the street.
Aoun, an investigating judge from the Mont-Liban district, presents herself as an activist against corruption and accuses the superiors of trying to arrest her. But for his detractors, it is a tool of his support, the President of Lebanon, who they say uses it to punish his political opponents and protect his allies.
This is the problem in Lebanon: the judiciary is so deeply politicized that it paralyzes the workings of justice, mirroring how factional rivalries have crippled politics.
Political interference in the justice system has for years thwarted investigations into corruption, violence and assassinations. But mistrust of the judiciary is even more dramatic today, as the Lebanese demand that politicians be held accountable for the disastrous crises in their country – not only the financial collapse, but also that of last August. . massive explosion in the port of Beirut which killed dozens of people and destroyed much of the capital. The explosion was blamed on incompetence and neglect.
Lebanon’s political posts are divided in a system of power sharing between sectarian factions. Judicial appointments are subject to the same sectarian attribution and to the same horse trade.
Ghada Aoun is a Maronite Christian, like the country’s president, Michel Aoun, and her supporters are mainly members of the president’s Free Patriotic Movement. The two are not related. The public prosecutor, Oueidat, is a Sunni Muslim, like the prime minister designate, Saad Hariri. The country’s main financial prosecutor is a Shia Muslim, chosen by the country’s main Shia factions, Amal and Hezbollah. Positions throughout the judicial hierarchy are distributed in the same way.
“Those in power have set up a justice system that is loyal to them in order to fight their opponents and protect their interests,” retired prosecutor Hatem Madi told The Associated Press.
President Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Hariri are locked in a power struggle that has prevented the formation of a cabinet for more than six months. As a result, there is no leadership to carry out reforms to save the country even as the value of the currency collapses.
The Lebanese looked on with fury as theirs savings and wages fall in value and prices soar. The central bank is struggling to raise enough hard currency to fuel electricity or other key imports, let alone maintain its long-standing currency-to-dollar peg.
Even more infuriating to the public, the rich and politically connected moved billions of dollars to safety outside Lebanon, even after banks imposed informal capital controls at the start of the crisis. Most people have not been able to access their dollars in bank accounts since the end of 2019.
Ghada Aoun, the judge, probed Mecattaf Holding, suspected of having contributed to this flight of capital. Mecattaf, one of Lebanon’s largest silver and gold trading companies, has denied any connection to any suspicious transfers, saying all of its activities are legal.
Skeptics note that Mecattaf owner Michel Mecattaf is the editor of Nidaa al-Watan, a daily that harshly criticizes President Aoun and his main ally, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Ghada Aoun also continued to prosecute Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh and former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, both opponents of the president.
In tweets, Aoun said she was being sidelined “because I dared to open an important case and tried to establish the truth with evidence.” She accuses her opponents of having used “false accusations” against her to “politicize a case of justice, a case where an oppressed people want to account”.
After his previous raids, Ouiedat ordered him to withdraw his financial affairs. Then, on April 20, he and Aoun appeared at a session of Lebanon’s highest judicial body, where they upheld the order. Outside, supporters of the president and prime minister clashed and nearly fought before the military pulled them apart. The next day, she carried out her third raid on the company.
Sami Kara, a Hariri supporter, said Aoun ruined his long reputation by breaking into the company. “It was used for political purposes and now they threw it away,” said the 61-year-old shop owner.
The Lebanese are also closely monitoring the investigation into the explosion on August 4 of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrates improperly stored in the port of Beirut. The explosion killed 211 people, injured more than 6,000 and devastated neighboring neighborhoods.
The first examining magistrate charged two former cabinet ministers with negligence, but was later dismissed from the case after the former ministers raised lawsuits against him. Many fear that his replacement, Judge Tarek Bitar, will be prevented by politicians from holding anyone responsible for the explosion.
Judges know that if they want important posts, they must be loyal to a political leader, said Bushra al-Khalil, a prominent Lebanese lawyer.
Knowing this, some people go directly to politicians and ask for their help in cases, rather than going through legal authorities, she said. Others hire a lawyer with strong political connections to intimidate judges.
Madi said the long-term solution is for the judiciary to be independent under the constitution. Currently, it is under the authority of the government.
Lebanon “has proved incapable of fighting corruption,” said outgoing Minister of Justice Marie-Claude Najm, highlighting the divisions manifested in the quarrel between Aoun and Ouiedat.
“After all that has happened,” she said, “how can people feel that they respect and trust justice?”