Lebanon’s new government lifts petrol price, signs audit deal

Lebanon’s new government lifts petrol price, signs audit deal
Lebanese riot police stand guard in front the central bank building, where anti-government demonstrators protest against the Lebanese central bank's governor Riad Salameh and the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut. (AP)
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Updated 17 September 2021

Lebanon’s new government lifts petrol price, signs audit deal

Lebanon’s new government lifts petrol price, signs audit deal
  • The audit is a key requirement for Lebanon to secure foreign aid
  • Fuel prices issued on Friday raised the gasoline price by more than 37 percent

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s new government raised gasoline prices on Friday, cutting a subsidy that Prime Minister Najib Mikati termed unaffordable as he advances plans to address a devastating financial crisis.

The government also signed a new contract with restructuring consultancy Alvarez & Marsal to carry out a forensic audit of the central bank.

Fuel prices issued on Friday raised the gasoline price by more than 37 percent with immediate effect.

The price of a 20-liter canister of unleaded 98-octane gasoline now ranges between 174,000 and 180,000 Lebanese pounds ($13). On the black market, 20 liters are sold for 600,000 Lebanese pounds.

The Ministry of Energy issued on Friday a price list for liquid fuels based on the exchange rate of the central bank’s Sayrafa platform.

This means that Lebanon has entered the last stage before lifting subsidies on gasoline after the subsidy on diesel was completely lifted.

The exchange rate on Sayrafa is 12,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, while the black market rate dropped to 13,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar on Friday morning. It began picking up again in the afternoon, reaching 14,200 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

Queues at gas stations were especially long over the past 24 hours, with the postponement of the pricing process delaying the opening of hundreds of gas stations.

“The liberalization of gasoline imports means that the process has become purely technical; companies import and secure goods for the country as they did many years ago. The central bank no longer has anything to do with the issue of securing dollars,” said Georges Fayyad, who heads the Association of Petroleum Importing Companies in Lebanon.

This measure came the day after the first shipment of Iraqi fuel arrived in Lebanon. The 32,000 ton-shipment is being unloaded in the tanks of Electricité du Liban, and the second shipment of grade B fuel will arrive next week.

A source in the EDL said: “The EDL is expected to be able to increase the power supply by about four hours,” bearing in mind that households only get one or two hours of EDL power a day.

Owners of private generators practice harsh rationing on subscribers due to the scarcity of diesel. Bills have doubled: Five amps per month costs over 1.5 million Lebanese pounds, more than double the minimum wage.

Eighty Syrian tankers loaded with Iranian diesel entered Lebanon through Hezbollah’s illegal crossings with Syria this week, evading state control and violating state sovereignty.

Druze leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, sarcastically tweeted: “We no longer know where the convoys of diesel, gasoline and oil come from. We now have so many enthusiasts that we may become an oil-exporting country without demarcation of borders or exploration.”

George Brax, a member of the gas station owners’ syndicate, said: “The Iraqi fuel will contribute to reducing the demand for diesel to generate electricity, and lifting the subsidy will reduce demand on the black market. As for Iranian diesel, it contributes to alleviating the crisis, but it is only temporary since Hezbollah cannot continue importing fuel into Lebanon.”

The government signed a new contract with A&M to carry out a forensic audit of the central bank, a step sought by donors who want to see Beirut enact reforms to unlock badly needed aid.

Finance Minister Youssef Khalil, formerly a senior central bank official, signed the contract with A&M, which the ministry said would present an initial report within 12 weeks of its team starting work.

A&M withdrew from the audit last November, saying it had not received the information it required. The Finance Ministry said in April the central bank had agreed to hand over required documents.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri announced that a public session would be held on Sept. 20 to discuss the ministerial statement of Najib Mikati’s government and pass a vote of confidence.

In a statement, Mikati’s government stressed that it is “committed to resuming talks with the International Monetary Fund based on priorities and what the national interest requires.”

It also noted that it wants to implement “reforms in the banking sector and restructure it as necessary.”

The IMF talks were stalled last year when politicians and bankers questioned the extent of financial losses identified in the financial recovery plan put in place by the government at the time.

The EU is threatening Mikati’s government with sanctions until it fulfills the promises made to implement the reforms required by the IMF and the international community.


Kuwait’s emir launches process for amnesty pardoning dissidents

Kuwait’s emir launches process for amnesty pardoning dissidents
Updated 58 min 26 sec ago

Kuwait’s emir launches process for amnesty pardoning dissidents

Kuwait’s emir launches process for amnesty pardoning dissidents
  • This could potentially end a months-long standoff with opposition

KUWAIT: Kuwait’s ruling emir on Wednesday paved the way for an amnesty pardoning dissidents that has been a major condition of opposition lawmakers to end a months-long standoff with the appointed government that has paralyzed legislative work.
Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah tasked the parliament speaker, the prime minister and the head of the supreme judicial council to recommend the conditions and terms of the amnesty ahead of it being issued by decree, Sheikh Nawaf’s office said.


Syrian army shelling kills at least 11 civilians

Syrian army shelling kills at least 11 civilians
Updated 20 October 2021

Syrian army shelling kills at least 11 civilians

Syrian army shelling kills at least 11 civilians
  • Among the casualties were several school children

AMMAN: At least 11 civilians died on Wednesday in a Syrian army shelling of residential areas of rebel-held Ariha city, witnesses and rescue workers said.
The shelling from Syrian army outposts, which came shortly after a roadside bomb killed at least 13 military personnel in Damascus, fell on residential areas in the city in Idlib province.
Among the casualties were several school children, witnesses and medical workers in the opposition enclave said.


13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media
Updated 20 October 2021

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media
  • Images released by SANA showed a burning bus

DAMASCUS: A bomb attack on an army bus in Damascus killed at least 13 people Wednesday in the bloodiest such attack in years, the SANA state news agency reported.
“A terrorist bombing using two explosive devices targeted a passing bus” on a key bridge in the capital, the news agency said, reporting an initial casualty toll of 13 dead and three wounded.
Images released by SANA showed a burning bus and what it said was a bomb squad defusing a third device that had been planted in the same area.
Damascus had been mostly spared such violence in recent years, especially since troops and allied militia retook the last significant rebel bastion near the capital in 2018.


Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists
Updated 20 October 2021

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists
  • Civil society members stage a sit-in outside the Justice Palace to show ‘solidarity with the judiciary’

BEIRUT: Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the August 2020 port explosion, resumed investigations on Tuesday after being notified by the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation of its second decision to reject the request submitted by the defendant in the case of MP Ali Hassan Khalil.

Normal service resumed at the Justice Palace in Beirut after a long vacation. The Lebanese army guarding roads leading to the palace and Ain Remaneh, which was the arena of bloody events on Thursday, over protests to dismiss Bitar from the case. The repercussions of these events have affected the political scene, its parties and the people.

Civil society activists under the auspices of the “Lebanese Opposition Front” staged a sit-in outside the Justice Palace to show “solidarity with the Judiciary carrying out its national duties and support for Judge Bitar to face the threats.”

Speaking on behalf of the protestors, activist Dr. Ziad Abdel Samad said: “A free and sovereign state cannot exist without a legitimate authority, judiciary and justice.”

Abdel Samad urged “the defendants to appear before Judge Bitar, because the innocent normally show up and defend themselves instead of resorting to threats.”

“We have reached this low point today because of a ruling elite allied with the Hezbollah statelet, protected by illegal arms.

“They want to dismiss Judge Bitar in all arbitrary ways and threats because he has come so close to the truth after they managed to dismiss the former judge, hiding behind their immunities because they know they are involved in the crime.”

Abdel Samad claimed that “those making threats are involved in the crime.”

Regarding the Tayouneh events that took place last week, he said: “They took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully, as they claimed, but they almost got us into a new civil war as a result of the hatred and conspiracies against Lebanon.”

Lawyer May Al-Khansa, known for her affiliation with Hezbollah, submitted a report at the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation against the leader of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, Judge Bitar and “all those who appear in the investigation to be involved, accomplices or partners in crimes of terrorism and terrorism funding, undermining the state’s authority, inciting a strife, and other crimes against the law and the Lebanese Constitution.”

Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah on Monday night waged an unprecedented campaign of accusations and incitement against the Lebanese Forces party and its leader.    

Nasrallah accused them of being “the biggest threat for the presence of Christians in Lebanon” and said they were “forming alliances with Daesh.”

In a clear threat to Geagea and his party, Nasrallah bragged in his speech of having “100,000 trained fighters,” calling on Christians to “stand against this murderer.”

Nasrallah accused Bitar of “carrying out a foreign agenda targeting Hezbollah in the Beirut port crime” and of “being supported by embassies and authorities, turning him into a dictator.”

During the parliamentary session on Tuesday, no contact was made between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces. However, a handshake was spotted between the Lebanese Forces’ MP Pierre Abu Assi and the Amal Movement’s MP Hani Kobeissi.

Minister of Culture Mohammed Mortada, who represents Hezbollah, said “Hezbollah’s ministers will attend the ministerial session if Prime Minister Najib Mikati calls for one, but the justice minister and the judiciary must find a solution to the issue of lack of trust in Bitar.”

Several calls were made on Monday night between different political groups to prevent escalation and calm the situation.

Efforts are being made to reach a settlement that allows Bitar to keep his position and for defendants in the Beirut port case — who are former ministers and MPs — to be referred to the Supreme Judicial Council for prosecution.

Elsewhere, parliament dropped the proposal of a women’s quota ensuring female participation through  a minimum of 26 seats.

It passed a move to allow expats to vote for the 128 MPs and dropped the decision to allocate six additional seats representing them.

The parliament’s decision angered Gebran Bassil, who heads the Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc. Following the parliamentary session, Bassil referred to “a political game in the matter of expats’ right to vote, which we will not allow to happen.”


European court raps Turkey over presidential ‘insults’ law

European court raps Turkey over presidential ‘insults’ law
Updated 20 October 2021

European court raps Turkey over presidential ‘insults’ law

European court raps Turkey over presidential ‘insults’ law
  • Thousands have been charged and sentenced over the crime of insulting President Erdogan in 7 years

STRASBOURG, France: Europe’s top human rights court on Tuesday called on Turkey to change a law regarding insulting the president under which tens of thousands have been prosecuted, after ruling that a man’s detention under the law violated his freedom of expression.

Vedat Sorli was given a suspended 11-month jail sentence in 2017 over a caricature and a photograph of President Tayyip Erdogan that he shared on Facebook, along with satirical and critical comments.

There was no justification for Sorli’s detention and pre-trial arrest or the imposition of a criminal sanction, the European Court of Human Rights court said.

“Such a sanction, by its very nature, inevitably had a chilling effect on the willingness of the person concerned to express his or her views on matters of public interest,” it said.

The criminal proceedings against Sorli were “incompatible with freedom of expression,” the court added.

Thousands have been charged and sentenced over the crime of insulting Erdogan in the seven years since he moved from being prime minister to president.

In 2020, 31,297 investigations were launched in relation to the charge, 7,790 cases were filed and 3,325 resulted in convictions, according to Justice Ministry data. Those numbers were slightly lower than the previous year.

Since 2014, the year Erdogan became president, 160,169 investigations were launched over insulting the president, 35,507 cases were filed and there were 12,881 convictions.

In a prominent case earlier this year, a court sentenced pro-Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas to 3-1/2 years for insulting Erdogan, one of the longest sentences over the crime, according to Demirtas’ lawyer.

The court said Turkey’s law on insulting the president affords the head of state a privileged status over conveying information and opinion about them.

It said the law should be changed to ensure people have the freedom to hold opinions and impart ideas without interference by authorities in order to put an end to the violation it found in Sorli’s case.

10 diplomat summoned

Separately, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassadors of the US and nine other countries to protest a statement they issued that called for the release of imprisoned philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala.

Kavala, 64, has been kept behind bars for four years, accused of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government through the 2013 nationwide demonstrations that started at Istanbul’s Gezi Park. He has also been charged with espionage and attempting to overthrow the government in connection with a failed military coup in 2016.

The ministry said the ambassadors were told that “the impertinent statement via social media regarding a legal proceeding conducted by independent judiciary was unacceptable.” Turkey rejects the attempt to “politicize judicial proceedings and put pressure on (the) Turkish judiciary,” it continued.

“Turkey is a democratic country governed by the rule of law that respects human rights, and it was reminded that the Turkish judiciary will not be influenced by such irresponsible statements,” the ministry added.