Lebanese foreign minister requests secrecy of Swiss judicial investigation

Lebanese foreign minister requests secrecy of Swiss judicial investigation
In this photo released by Lebanon's official government photographer Dalati Nohra, Lebanese Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbi, left, meets with Switzerland's ambassador to Lebanon Monika Schmutz Kirgöz, right, in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 25 January 2021

Lebanese foreign minister requests secrecy of Swiss judicial investigation

Lebanese foreign minister requests secrecy of Swiss judicial investigation
  • Banque du Liban governor alleges systematic attempt to tarnish his, bank’s image

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s foreign minister, Charbel Wehbe, demanded the absolute secrecy of the investigation into “suspicions of money laundering and embezzlement by the Banque du Liban,” following a Swiss request for assistance from the Lebanese judiciary.

Wehbe met with the Swiss ambassador to Beirut, Monika Schmutz Kirgoz, on Monday, who refused to comment on the matter, saying that the probe was a matter that the Swiss minister of justice and the attorney general were dealing with, adding that the Swiss attorney general was the one who requested judicial assistance.

Wehbe said: “Despite the importance of this matter to the Lebanese public, absolute secrecy is required in response to what is being circulated through Lebanese media regarding this case.”

Wehbe called on the media to “report the news as it is, without interpretations, additions, or switching words around.”

He also said: “I hope that the Lebanese judiciary will have absolute freedom to make a statement and take the appropriate decision in this regard.”

The Lebanese judiciary informed the governor of the Banque du Liban, Riad Salameh, last week that he is expected to present his testimony either before the attorney general in Switzerland or before a Swiss judicial delegation at the country’s embassy in Lebanon.

Salameh denied he had made any transfers from the accounts of the Banque du Liban or from its budgets, and expressed his readiness to go to Switzerland to present his testimony.

He said in a statement on Monday: “All reports about large transfers reported by some media outlets are very exaggerated and have nothing to do with reality. They aim to systematically tarnish the image of the central bank and its governor.”

Salameh refused in his statement to “publicly delve into figures and facts to refute all the lies.”

A Lebanese judicial source told Arab News: “(The Lebanese judiciary) has nothing to do with the Swiss investigation into the case of the Banque du Liban. We received a request for assistance, and we are acting as a mailbox.

“The Swiss asked for documents, and we have referred the request to the central bank, and when the documents are available, we will forward them to the Swiss judicial authority.”

The Swiss parliament approved in late 2019 the automatic exchange of bank data with 18 additional countries, including Lebanon.

This agreement means that Switzerland can, under the agreement, provide details of bank accounts held by Lebanese citizens for the purposes of tax verification.

The implementation of this agreement began this year, but Lebanon will not benefit from it due to its failure to meet the standards of the Global Privacy Assembly, according to the declaration issued by the Swiss parliament at the time.

This means that Lebanon will not be able to obtain data or information on Lebanese accounts in Swiss banks, nor in the banks of the signatory countries, except in one case: If the Swiss authorities prove that the transferred funds are suspicious.

News was circulated on social media on Sunday that a Swiss member of parliament said there had been a Swiss decision to freeze Lebanese accounts due to large suspicious financial transfers.

Swiss Socialist MP Fabian Molina said that the funds that arrived in his country from Lebanon after 2016 increased by about $2 billion, “but it has not yet been confirmed that the money entered Switzerland from illegal sources.”

Molina did not confirm reports that funds in Salameh’s account had been frozen. “The press was the one that reported freezing $400 million in Riad Salameh’s account,” he said.

The forensic audit into the accounts of the Banque du Liban is one of the most important clauses in the economic recovery plan that was approved by the government to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund. This clause was included in the French initiative set by President Emmanuel Macron to help Lebanon solve its economic crisis.

Free Patriotic Movement MP Salim Aoun accused “a political system of transferring billions of dollars abroad.”

He said: “Salameh is the agent of this system. If protection for the first official is removed, protection will be removed for all officials, and I fear that some will interfere to obstruct this path.”


Tensions rising between Athens, Ankara

Tensions rising between Athens, Ankara
Updated 34 min 24 sec ago

Tensions rising between Athens, Ankara

Tensions rising between Athens, Ankara
  • Greek PM: ‘The best we can hope for is avoiding a military accident’

ANKARA: While Turkey and Greece came together to resume talks over their maritime disputes, the decades-long tension between the countries has resurfaced again. 

Ankara claimed four Greek F-16 jets harassed a Turkish research vessel in the Aegean Sea on Tuesday by dropping a flare two miles away from the ship near the Greek island of Lemnos — an accusation that was quickly denied by Athens. 

Greece’s Air Force was conducting an exercise in the Aegean Sea at the time, but allegedly far away from the Turkish vessel. 

In a press briefing, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said his country responded with the “necessary retaliation in line with the rules. While we are carrying out scientific work, harassment is not correct. It doesn't fit in our good neighborly ties.”

The Greek Defense Ministry insisted their jets never harassed the Turkish vessel.

Turkey’s new research vessel, the TCG Cesme, conducted annual hydrographic survey work last week in international waters between the two countries, stirring Athens' anger. 

The Greek Foreign Ministry criticized the presence of the Turkish vessel in the area, describing it as “an unnecessary move that doesn't help positive sentiment.”

In retaliation, Ankara accused Greece of conducting similar military exercises in the Aegean Sea near islands that are supposed to be non-militarized by international and bilateral agreements.

The incident triggered, once again, the unresolved bilateral dispute over maritime zones as both countries continue to pursue energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. 

The second round of exploratory talks was expected to be held in Athens in early March. It was scheduled ahead of the EU Summit on March 25-26, during which Brussels will decide on possible sanctions on Ankara over its energy exploration missions in the eastern Mediterranean. 

“It is important that the resumption of exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey does not elicit hopes for a breakthrough,” George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the International Center of European Formation, told Arab News.  

“The two countries interpret dialogue in different terms and employ relevant political communication strategies. New tensions concerning the research ship Cesme are nothing new in the modern history of bilateral relations, but they further deteriorate an already toxic climate.”

Turkish-Greek relations have already been tested with the Cyprus conflict as Ankara ruled out discussing a federal system to reunify the divided island. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Feb. 10 that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis “will get to know the crazy Turks as well.”

The harsh rhetoric illustrates Turkey’s anger about the bizonal and bicommunal federation offer from Greece, and it did not stop there. 

“Exploratory talks were supposed to be held in Athens but Mitsotakis challenged me,” Erdogan said in the Parliament. “How can we sit down with you now? Know your place first.”

According to Tzogopoulos, without a positive agenda, long-term solutions are unlikely.  

“For now the best we can hope for is avoiding a military accident, while experienced Greek and Turkish diplomats continue their work,” he said. 

Tzogopoulos said that from a European perspective, a model of selective engagement with Turkey is being studied in Brussels. 

“This will continue despite new tensions,” he said. “From a NATO perspective, deconfliction remains a priority and this goal has been met until now.”


Houthi demands delay mission to assess decaying tanker off Yemen: UN

Houthi demands delay mission to assess decaying tanker off Yemen: UN
Updated 40 min 11 sec ago

Houthi demands delay mission to assess decaying tanker off Yemen: UN

Houthi demands delay mission to assess decaying tanker off Yemen: UN

LONDON: There are new delays in deploying an expert mission to assess the condition of the Safer tanker and conduct initial repairs due to a new list of requests from the Houthis related to “logistics and security arrangements,” the United Nations said on Wednesday. 

The tanker has been moored near Ras Issa oil terminal for more than five years. The UN previously warned that it could leak four times as much oil as was spilled during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the Security Council have repeatedly called on the Houthi militia in Yemen to grant access to the tanker for a technical assessment and emergency repairs.
More to follow


Sudan launches monthly cash allowances to ease economic pain

Sudan launches monthly cash allowances to ease economic pain
Updated 24 February 2021

Sudan launches monthly cash allowances to ease economic pain

Sudan launches monthly cash allowances to ease economic pain
  • The family support project, named “Thamarat” (Fruits), is initially being rolled out in four of Sudan’s 18 states
  • Inflation has risen to more than 300%, and there have been frequent shortages of bread, fuel, power and medicine

KHARTOUM: Sudan launched a scheme on Wednesday to alleviate the impact of a severe economic crisis by paying out monthly cash allowances of $5 that are eventually meant to reach 80% of the population.
The first $400 million phase of the program is financed by the World Bank and other donors, but disbursement of funds had been delayed ahead of a steep currency devaluation announced early on Sunday.
The family support project, named “Thamarat” (Fruits), is initially being rolled out in four of Sudan’s 18 states.
Sudan has been roiled by an economic crisis that triggered protests against former ruler Omar Al-Bashir and continued after his overthrow in April 2019.
An uneasy, transitional military-civilian alliance now governs the country of 45 million. Inflation has risen to more than 300%, and there have been frequent shortages of bread, fuel, power and medicine.
“The Thamarat program is here to help people through this hard time,” Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said as he launched the program in Al-Kalakla, a neighborhood on the southern outskirts of the capital, Khartoum.
Hamdok acknowledged that the scheme had been slow to start but appealed to people to be patient. Logistical challenges registering families have contributed to delays, officials say.
“We aspire to have it cover all of Sudan’s states soon,” Hamdok said.
The government had taken measures try to limit price increases after devaluation, but that the allowances were designed to cushion the impact of any further inflation, said Finance Minister Jibril Ibrahim.
“We will try to make sure they (prices rises) don’t happen, but if they do people will have extra income to face these increases,” he said.
“We want this to be a productive program. We want people to pool their money and start small productive projects.”


Iran’s limits on UN nuclear inspections a ‘threat’: Israel

Iran’s limits on UN nuclear inspections a ‘threat’: Israel
Updated 24 February 2021

Iran’s limits on UN nuclear inspections a ‘threat’: Israel

Iran’s limits on UN nuclear inspections a ‘threat’: Israel

JERUSALEM: Israel on Wednesday described Iran’s move to restrict some site inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog as a “threat” that required a response.
Iran this week began limiting the International Atomic Energy Agency’s access to sites and other information in response to the US refusal so far to lift sanctions imposed by former president Donald Trump.
“Israel sees this step as a threat and it must not go by without response,” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a statement.
“We will never allow Iran to control the capability to acquire a nuclear weapon,” he added.
Israel’s government, led by right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was vehemently opposed to the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated between Tehran and world powers.
Netanyahu applauded when Trump scrapped the deal almost three years ago.
The Israeli leader has repeatedly urged US President Joe Biden not to restore the deal.
But Biden, European powers and Iran are still trying to keep the nuclear accord alive.
Tehran demands Washington take the first step by scrapping painful sanctions Trump had imposed since 2018, while Washington insists Iran first return to all its nuclear commitments, some of which it has backed away from.
Iran’s parliament had set Sunday as the deadline to limit to some IAEA inspections, a move that took effect on Tuesday.
The IAEA and Iran agreed a temporary technical deal allowing the watchdog to “retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work,” according to IAEA chief Rafael Grossi.
With inspections now restricted, Ashkenazi said that “Iran is destroying what remains of the IAEA’s oversight.”
Iran says its nuclear program is civilian in nature.
Netanyahu alleges the Islamic republic is pursuing a nuclear weapon and insists this marks one of the gravest threats to the Jewish people since the Nazi Holocaust.


HRW lauds Iraqi arrest of alleged members of Iran-backed force

HRW lauds Iraqi arrest of alleged members of Iran-backed force
Updated 24 February 2021

HRW lauds Iraqi arrest of alleged members of Iran-backed force

HRW lauds Iraqi arrest of alleged members of Iran-backed force
  • 4 men under investigation for killing of civilians during anti-govt protests
  • Attacks by Popular Mobilization Forces against civilians continue

LONDON: Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday welcomed the arrest in Iraq of four alleged members of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

The four men are under investigation for the killing of at least four civilians during anti-government demonstrations in the city of Basra in January 2020. One of the men holds a senior Iraqi police position.

“These arrests in Basra may represent a real change in the government’s willingness to hold its own forces accountable for perpetrating serious crimes, and will help deter such abuses in the future,” said Belkis Wille, a senior crisis and conflict researcher at HRW.

“The government should also ensure that the trials of the men are fair and devoid of any political influence.”

Anti-government protests in Iraq were sparked in October 2019 and quickly turned violent, with excessive force from the police and other Iraqi forces leading to 487 civilian deaths.

Various armed groups were found to be carrying out forced disappearances, illegal detentions and excessive force against protestors.

The Basra PMF unit is alleged to have ties with the Iran-backed PMF Hezbollah Brigades. Investigations continue regarding possible ties with other PMF units.

The four civilians in question are Jinan Madi, a paramedic who was treating injured protestors when she was killed; journalist Ahmed Abdessamad and camera operator Safaa Ghali, who were reporting from the demonstrations; and protestor Mojtaba Ahmed Al-Skini, 14. 

HRW said a source close to the Iraqi government had said the authorities had identified 16 men implicated in the killings, but most had already fled the country.

Despite recent arrests and the government’s commitment to holding people accountable for the killing of protestors, PMF attacks on civilians have continued, and justice has yet to be given to the families of many of those killed during the demonstrations in 2019.