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Central Bank fighting money laundering - Campaign intensified in bid to stamp out dirty cash (Daily Star)

The Central Bank has intensified its campaign against suspected money launderers after Lebanon’s name was removed from the list of countries not cooperating in the fight against dirty money less than a year ago.

According to a report issued on Wednesday by the Special Investigation Commission (SIC), which is entrusted with inquiring into money laundering activities, banking secrecy was lifted on 79 of the 138 cases that were eventually passed on to the general prosecutor for further investigation last year.

The report said that 35 of these cases are currently under investigation by the general prosecutor.
The SIC also claimed that out of the 138 cases it has received from different local and foreign sources, 24 were involved in terrorist activity.

Embezzlement of private funds ranked first with 27 cases, followed by terrorism with 24, counterfeiting and forgery at 20, drugs with 13, embezzlement of public funds at seven, organized crimes at one, and one illegal arms trading case. 45 of the 138 cases were not classified. It added that 75 of these cases were local.

The SIC also examined 48 banks and a significant number of other reporting entities to ensure compliance with anti-money laundering law regulations.
But SIC did not disclose the total amount of money frozen by the Central Bank.

With regard to cases related to terrorism, the report said that the US Embassy in Beirut submitted the names of 95 individuals to the local authorities, of which 89 were being investigated.
The US government also urged the government to freeze bank accounts of suspected terrorist groups. In March 2002, the SIC told the US Embassy that they had not found any accounts operating in the country related to the list.

Lebanon has refused to freeze the accounts of Hizbullah, stressing that they are not involved in any terrorist activity.
In 2001, the SIC said that over $5 million worth of bank accounts were frozen by the Central Bank.
Not all the cases and names that the Central Bank receives from local and foreign authorities are necessarily guilty.
The president of the SIC, Mohammed Baasiri, told The Daily Star that the commission submits these cases to the attorney-general’s office for further investigation.

He added that the SIC did not disclose the total number of bank accounts frozen in order not to hinder investigations.
“On average, about 10 percent of these cases worldwide usually turn out to be involved in money laundering activities,” Baasiri said.
The government, under pressure from the international community, approved a law to tighten banking supervision but without affecting the cherished banking secrecy law.

In June 2002, the Financial Action Task Force removed Lebanon’s name from the list of countries not doing enough to stamp out money laundering.
The Central Bank and the Banking Control Commission drafted a law consisting of 25 articles which fully meets the strict FATF requirements.

The removal of Lebanon’s name from the list has spared the country possible economic sanctions by Western countries that are fighting hard to stamp out money laundering.
Lebanon is one of the few countries in the world with a banking secrecy law.

Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh said in the report that the process of creating awareness continued in earnest, with several seminars on money laundering held last year.
“Now with the de-listing behind us, we look forward to a future in which our efforts will enable the SIC to deliver on its commitment to become a leading institution in Lebanon and the region,” Salameh said.

The Central Bank froze the accounts of 12 individuals and companies two months ago for violating Law 318, related to money laundering. It later unfroze these accounts after the individuals proved to the authorities satisfaction that they were not involved in any money laundering activities.
Some of these names had direct and indirect relations with the troubled Al-Madina Bank that temporarily suffered from a liquidity crunch.

Beirut 31-03-2003
Osama Habib
The Daily Star



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