BEIRUT: Two Lebanese judges, Ghada Aoun and Amani Salameh, have become overnight heroes in recent days for a generation of young people rising up against a ruling authority they perceive as corrupt.
On Thursday, a third judge, Rania Rahme, joined them, issuing a decision to impose a fine of 200 million Lebanese pounds (nearly $133,000) after Byblos Bank refused to implement her decision to transfer university tuition fees to a Lebanese student studying abroad. That decision was based on the Student Dollar law passed by parliament last October but not implemented by the banks.
Rahme’s decision is reportedly the first fine to be issued by the Lebanese judiciary against banks to compel them to implement that law.
A judicial source speaking to Arab News described promoting the decisions of the three judges on social media and in some media outlets as a heroic battle as “a dish of pebbles and a populist parade.” The source said the decisions are likely to be reversed on appeal.
Activist and attorney Hassan Bazzi said the decisions against the banks are a sign that the Lebanese Judges Association — with which all three judges are affiliated, according to Bazzi — is fighting corruption and wants the judiciary to be its own master.
“Those judges do not have a political agenda,” he said. “They are close to the people. They do not visit politicians in their palaces and they do not seek the blessings of (political) leaders. I know them well.”
He continued: “Young judges are courageous. It is inaccurate to say that the decisions will be dropped in the appeal stage. There are many examples of female judges who have had their decisions approved.”
On Wednesday, Salameh — Bekaa’s first investigating judge — issued a decision ordering the seizure of defendants’ stocks and shares in companies and real estate and of their money inside and outside Lebanese territory.
Her decision was based on a complaint filed by depositors from the “People Want to Reform the System” civil society group against the chairpersons of banks, accusing the banks of “breach of trust, fraud, negligent and fraudulent bankruptcy, forms of fraud, the smuggling of funds to harm depositors, undermining the state’s financial reputation, money laundering, exchanging money without a license, and establishing criminal associations.”
Lebanese banks froze the accounts of dollar depositors and banned international transfers after the dollar shortage crisis in the country began at the end of 2019.
The banks decided to pay the seized deposits in Lebanese pounds based on a dollar-exchange rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds and imposed ceilings on withdrawals at a time when the exchange rate on the black market was three times that figure.
Activists and lawyers on social media have described Salameh’s decision as “a precedent in the history of criminal cases filed against banks and their boards of directors.” Others in the judiciary, however, have played down the significance of the decision.
Salameh is the head of the Lebanese Judges Association, a representative body that was formed during the Oct. 2019 uprising and is separate from existing judicial bodies.
It has been the subject of controversy, especially after its famous statement in the aftermath of the Beirut Port blast in Aug. 2020, in which Salameh accused the judicial body of being “absent” and of “accepting being rendered invisible by the politicians.”
She also accused “the Public Prosecutor at the Court of Cassation and the Financial Public Prosecutor’s Office of concluding settlements with banks and remaining silent about investigating suspicious accounts.”
Salameh’s decision regarding bank chairpersons was noted by Aoun, the appellate public prosecutor in Mount Lebanon, who had earlier been accused by the Supreme Judicial Council of “rebelling” against a decision by the Court of Cassation’s public prosecutor to dismiss her from an investigation into possible currency export breaches and refer her to the Judicial Inspection following a number of complaints against her.
Aoun has been the subject of controversy over the past two weeks after raiding the offices of the Mecattaf foreign exchange company in the company of supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).
The last of these raids was at midnight last Monday, when she learned that Judge Samer Lisha, who was appointed to replace her, was on the company’s premises.
Aoun reportedly went there to prevent Lisha from interfering with the case and explained that she was not concerned about any decision issued against her.
Aoun has attracted considerable backing for her actions from the general public.
Activists from the Free Patriotic Movement have described as “bolder than male judges in issuing judgments on behalf of the people and in their interest.”
But she has also been the subject of campaigns against her from other activists and public figures.