Lebanon central bank official probed over currency crash

Lebanon’s financial prosecutor questioned a top central bank manager on Friday over the country’s financial crisis. (File/AFP)
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Updated 15 May 2020

Lebanon central bank official probed over currency crash

  • Mazen Hamdan is the most senior official to be interrogated in an ongoing probe into possible financial wrongdoing
  • The central bank denied charges of manipulation in a statement that detailed recent transactions with money traders

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s financial prosecutor questioned a top central bank manager on Friday over the country’s financial crisis, including the free fall of the Lebanese currency, a judicial official said.
Mazen Hamdan, the head of cash operations at the bank, is the most senior official to be interrogated in an ongoing probe into possible financial wrongdoing. He was ordered to appear for questioning about what Lebanon’s official news agency called “the manipulation of the dollar exchange rate.”
The central bank denied charges of manipulation in a statement that detailed recent transactions with money traders.
The probe reflected a growing clash between the central bank and the government at a critical time, as Lebanon launches talks with the International Monetary Fund to negotiate a rescue plan amid an unprecedented economic and financial crisis. The talks come against the backdrop of a deepening liquidity crunch, negative economic growth, soaring inflation and a massive state debt.
The judicial official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the investigation, said Hamdan has not yet been formally charged.
In a statement, the central bank said it was lifting banking secrecy rules to show transactions between the bank and private money traders, to respond to the prosecutor’s allegations. It said the transactions with private traders over one month were of a limited quantity and were no match to the fluctuations witnessed in the market. It added that no transactions with exchange bureaus occurred after May 5.
“There are no manipulations in the exchange market as a result of transactions with the central bank,” it said.
Meanwhile, the central bank’s staff union called for the release of Hamdan, denouncing a “continuous attack on the central bank” and saying Hamdan was only carrying out his administrative duties.
In recent days, authorities have cracked down on currency exchange bureaus as the Lebanese pound, pegged to the dollar for more than 20 years, lost 60% of its value in weeks. A number of money dealers and the head of their union were arrested and officials closed down some bureaus for operating without licenses. They accused others of violating orders from the central bank to trade at a new controlled rate.
The measures to contain the currency’s free fall, including a cap on external transfers and adjusted exchange rates for dollar withdrawals from banks and money transfer bureaus, have created chaos on the black market and sowed panic among the public.
The central bank said it will provide dollars to importers at the rate of 3,200 pounds to the dollar — more than double the official pegged rate — to control the price of food. The black market rate has reached over 4,200 pounds to the pound in recent days.
The interrogation of Hamdan comes amid an unprecedented public spat between the head of the government and the governor of the central bank. Prime Minister Hassan Diab has held the governor, Riad Salameh, responsible for the pound’s downward spiral. Salameh says he has been taking all necessary measures to contain the crisis and blames politicians for misspending bank finances to pay down massive state debt.


Archaeologists unearth 27 coffins buried 2,500 years ago in Egyptian tomb

Updated 22 September 2020

Archaeologists unearth 27 coffins buried 2,500 years ago in Egyptian tomb

  • Egyptian antiquities officials believe the discovery to be the largest of its kind in the region

CAIRO: Archaeologists in Egypt have discovered 27 coffins that were buried more than 2,500 years ago in a pharaonic cemetery.

The sarcophagi were found at the Saqqara site in the governorate of Giza, south of the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

Egyptian antiquities officials believe the discovery to be the largest of its kind in the region. Saqqara was an active burial ground for more than 3,000 years and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Initial studies indicate that the coffins and shrouds inside have remained tightly sealed since burial, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.

The discovery was part of an Egyptian dig in the Saqqara area which unearthed an 11-meter-deep well containing colorfully painted wooden coffins stacked on top of each other along with other smaller artefacts.

Khaled Al-Anani, the Egyptian minister of antiquities, postponed announcing the discovery until he could visit the site himself, where he thanked teams for working in difficult conditions.

Ahmed Abdel Aziz, a professor of pharaonic archeology at a private university, said: “This new discovery is not the first in the Saqqara archaeological area. Archaeological discoveries have increased over the past years which draw attention to this region.

“This prompted many archaeological missions from many countries to work in this region, trying to probe the depths of this region and the treasures hidden inside it.”

Al-Anani said the increase in archaeological discoveries and the number of projects recently implemented by the Ministry of Antiquities were down to political will and exceptional support from the Egyptian government.

He pointed out the importance of resuming the work of 300 archaeological missions from 25 countries after a hiatus of a number of years, including some working in Egypt for the first time such as the joint Egyptian Chinese archaeological mission.

There were about 50 Egyptian missions working at sites in governorates throughout the country and Al-Anani praised their efforts in helping to unearth more evidence of ancient Egyptian civilization.

Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities, said that Saqqara was one of the most promising historical areas when it came to archaeological discoveries, adding that he planned to continue working in the area with his mission members to uncover more secrets and treasures of the past.

He noted that new finds during the current excavation season would have a positive impact on tourism in Egypt at locations such as Giza, Saqqara, Luxor, and Aswan.

Mohamed Abdel Hamid, vice president of the Egyptian Association for Tourism and Archaeological Development, said that the discovery was a testament to the architectural development of the area that could be seen in King Djoser’s collection. The pharaoh was found in a step pyramid which was the first tomb in Egypt to be built using stones.