Lebanon’s financial prosecutor freezes assets of 20 banks

In this Jan. 14, 2020 file photo, anti-government protesters smash bank widows, during ongoing protests against the Lebanese central bank's governor, on Hamra Street, in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)
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Updated 05 March 2020

Lebanon’s financial prosecutor freezes assets of 20 banks

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s financial prosecutor has frozen the assets of 20 Lebanese banks, their top bosses and board members, state media and judicial sources said on Thursday.
Judge Ali Ibrahim gave notice to the central bank and the banking association, state news agency NNA said without naming the banks or giving details of the assets.
The move to freeze assets is part of an ongoing investigation, a senior judicial source said without elaborating.
The source said the decision involved some of Lebanon’s biggest banks, including Blom Bank, Bank Audi , Byblos Bank, Bank of Beirut and SGBL (Societe Generale De Banque Au Liban SAL).
The Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL), which represents the nation’s lenders, could not be reached for immediate comment.
Local banks are at the heart of a financial crisis crippling the country as the clock runs down on its looming debt maturities, including a $1.2 billion Eurobond due on March 9.
The government will meet on Saturday to take a decision, after Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said a majority of MPs oppose paying even if that leads to default, compounding doubts over whether Lebanon will meet the March repayment.
The economic and financial strains came to a head last year as capital inflows slowed and protests erupted against a political elite that has dominated Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war and steered it into crisis.
The crisis is rooted in decades of waste and corruption which landed the country with one of the world’s biggest public debt burdens. Domestic banks, which for years funneled deposits to the state, hold the bulk of the sovereign debt.
Lebanon is probing the sale of Eurobonds by local banks to foreign investors though the practice is not illegal, a judicial source said last month.
Berri, one of the country’s most influential leaders, blamed local banks on Wednesday for diluting the local holding. Critics say this has weakened Lebanon’s position in talks with foreign bondholders.
Some politicians have criticized the banking sector recently as public anger turned to the banks, which have severely curbed people’s access to their savings and blocked transfers abroad.
The head of the banking association, Salim Sfeir, has said those measures aim to keep Lebanon’s wealth in the country.
Sfeir said on Wednesday that the sector was being targetted with rumors and that banks had suffered losses to secure liquidity.
The central bank has asked banks to review transfers of funds abroad by politicians and government employees between October and December.
The government separately approved a draft law on Thursday aimed at lifting banking secrecy. The information minister said the law, which will go to parliament, would apply to ministers, MPs and a range of public officials.


Ski resorts out in the cold as France eases lockdown

Updated 47 min 1 sec ago

Ski resorts out in the cold as France eases lockdown

  • Frustrated resort operators count the cost of holiday season restrictions

MEGEVE, France:  Megeve, in the foothills of Mont Blanc, was gearing up to welcome back skiers before Christmas after a COVID-19 lockdown was eased.

But France’s government — while allowing cinemas, museums and theaters to reopen from Dec. 15 — says its ski slopes must stay off limits until 2021, leaving those who make their living in the Alpine village frustrated and, in some cases, perplexed.

“When you’re outside, when you’re doing sport outdoors, that’s not the moment when you’re going to give COVID-19 to someone. COVID-19 is passed on in enclosed places,” said Pierre de Monvallier, director of ski school Oxygene, which operates in several resorts including Megeve.

Announcing a phased easing of the lockdown on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said it was “impossible to envisage” re-opening ski slopes for Christmas and New Year, and that he preferred instead to do so during January.

“It felt like the door had been slammed in our face,” said Catherine Jullien-Breches, the mayor of Megeve, whose green slopes are generally covered with snow by mid-December.

“Unfortunately it’s a real drama for the economies of the villages and the winter sports resorts.”

People who live within 20 km of France’s Alpine resorts will able to visit from this weekend, but with the lifts staying shut, the main draw is missing.

“It’s like going on holiday on the Cote d’Azur and being told the sea is off limits,” said David Le Scouarnec, co-owner of Megeve’s Cafe 2 la Poste.

The problem for the resorts — and the hotels, restaurants, and workers who depend on them for their livelihood — is that their season is short, and they will have little time after the New Year to claw back lost revenue.

Other European authorities are wrestling with the same problem. Italy’s resorts regions are seeking approval for restricted skiing, but Austria, whose biggest cluster of the first wave of the pandemic was at the ski resort of Ischgl — where thousands were infected — is skeptical.

Prevarication cuts little ice, however, with Mathieu Dechavanne, Chairman and CEO of Compagnie du Mont-Blanc, which operates cable cars at Megeve and other resorts.

He said who could not understand why the government allowed trains and metros to operate, but barred him from re-opening. “It’s like we’re being punished. We don’t deserve this. We’re ready.”