Lebanese finance minister wages campaign against ‘real estate thieves’

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Land is cleared in the Beirut suburb of Khalde to make way for real estate development on July 25, 2012. Al-Akhbar/Haitham Moussawi

By: Firas Abou-Mosleh

Published Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil tried to avoid “defamation” by exposing the graft at the departments of real estate registration and survey at the ministry. But what he exposed was enough to confirm (what is already confirmed): Lands in Lebanon have been subjected to the largest and most systematic theft seen in the past two decades. The blame does not fall on corrupt administrators alone, but also implicates senior businesspeople and state officials, who seem to have gone on a rampage in government agencies and turned them into an instrument for illicit enrichment.

On July 28, 2006, at the height of the July War when Israeli warplanes were relentlessly pounding the villages of South Lebanon and the Resistance was retaliating by firing rockets deep into Israel, the Waf Trade and Investment Company (owned by Hujeij Holding and a number of people from the Hujeij family) was organizing paperwork for the private appropriation and transfer of ownership of more than 435,000 square meters of common land in the town of Kfardounine east of Sour (Tyre), not far from the border with occupied Palestine.

Odd real estate dealings like these – taking place in the heat of the war in the south – do not stop here, but include cases where grandparents inherited land plots from their grandchildren, to consider another example. This was made possible by a “special system” in the real estate departments of the government that legitimizes such violations, increasing duties and the cost of paperwork for citizens, and denying the government billions in fees and taxes, according to Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil.

On Monday, the minister said he would be referring 55 employees of the real estate department in his ministry to the financial public prosecutor for investigation. The employees work in the registration and real estate departments across the Lebanese regions. The minister said the move comes after “verifying many violations and documents confirming the involvement of employees and brokers” in theft, bribery, and embezzlement.

Real estate departments of the ministry have become the equivalent of Ali Baba’s cave for powerful interest groups. The departments have their own sets of “rules” that force citizens to pay bribes to get their paperwork done while legitimizing theft and extortion to boot.

Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Minister Hassan Khalil explained how powerful individuals, who are well versed in manipulating such loopholes in their favor, have been able to appropriate hundreds of thousands of meters of land from public and private property and common lands. Furthermore, in many cases, people proceeded to divide appropriated lands into plots with an area of less than 10,000 square meters each – as the Waf company did – to avoid giving the state the so-called “free quarter” it is entitled to in private plots that are larger than 10,000 square meters.

This is while bearing in mind that this quarter is allocated to building roads, infrastructure, and public spaces. According to Hassan Khalil, this is astounding; not only did the owners of this company appropriate vast swaths of lands, but their audacity also reached such an extent that they even engaged in additional fraud to avoid giving the state this free quarter.

The minister promised “direct results that will be felt by citizens” for his campaign against corruption in real estate departments. He said the campaign would start in south Lebanon, where common lands are being grabbed without any government agency responding to complaints by the people there so far, and would eventually reach every corner of Lebanon.

Hassan Khalil has initiated administrative investigations with employees and officials in eight real estate departments for alleged violations, especially in the valuation of real estate during registration. So far, the minister said, the government has been able to recover in excess of 28 billion L.L. ($18.6 million) in lost duties. Khalil is keen to deny any political motives behind his campaign, and also dismissed claims that he was trying to outdo the campaign led by Health Minister Wael Abu Faour against food fraud.

“There is no immunity for the employees of real estate and survey departments,” the minister said, calling on the competent authorities to investigate all the complaints being lodged. The minister announced that 29 cases involving 29 municipalities have been referred to the public prosecutor. Asked whether the campaign will tackle “major” offenders encroaching on public property, especially coastal and riverside common lands, Khalil said his campaign would begin with the “closest” offenders, stressing that cover will not be granted to anyone and that public opinion also has a responsibility to expose and confront violations.

Minister Hassan Khalil announced a series of measures. First, he will require all employees and surveyors named in the administrative and judicial actions, as well as all those working in real estate and surveying departments, to supply statements showing the real estate they own, “to implement as much as possible the law on illicit enrichment.” The minister expressed regret that this law has not been implemented seriously so far.

The minister also said he has suspended a number of official expediting officers who usually follow up on paperwork until the measures are implemented and wrong-doers are held accountable, saying that many of these expediters sit behind the desks of administrators to whom they are related, and determine fees without using any legal standards. One such example mentioned by the minister is that of the son of an official at the Kesserwan government real estate department, who has a permit for expediting paperwork. The man in question, according to the minister, now works full-time in his mother’s place carrying out her duties without any legal remit to do so.

Minister Ali Hassan Khalil pledged to hold accountable those registrars who sign paperwork using “more than one official capacity,” for example with registrars signing also as deputy registrars, which is blatant forgery as he put it. The minister also announced a comprehensive report would be prepared on pending real estate transactions that are deliberately prevented from being fast-tracked, by the end of the month. A “citizen’s guide” will also be distributed, explaining rights and duties in relation to official real estate procedures.

The minister launched a hotline for complaints that does not go through the real estate and registration departments, but goes to a special department that would forward complaints directly to the director general of real estate affairs at the ministry and the minister’s office.

The measures mentioned above cover so-called “petty corruption.” Meanwhile, Hassan Khalil’s has declared that he has more than 150 complaints related to surveys of woodlands and public spaces that had been registered in the name of private persons and companies, to create a “fait accompli.” The minister cautioned “those who think they got away with this,” saying that the matter will be pursued and prosecuted. In this regard, he said he has prepared a draft decree together with the Justice Ministry, pledging not only to recover those lands, but also to punish those involved.

Hassan Khalil said surveying works throughout the regions would be suspended, in accordance with the laws and regulations in force, particularly those that have been found to be linked to illegal activities affecting public and private properties and commons, saying that there is cooperation with the competent administrative and judicial bodies to freeze these procedures for at least 3 months. The minister said a committee was created to follow up on tip-offs and complaints from official, local, and municipal bodies as well as mukhtars and civil society groups regarding survey works in relation to these properties and commons, saying a special dossier will be prepared on the status of state properties and commons especially in the areas that have been covered by mandatory and voluntary surveys, including those where such works were completed in accordance to the legal principles regulating such properties.

The minister declared that all transfers of state properties to private ownership with a view to do dealings in them will be suspended, in cases not linked to “public interest.” He also said that he had asked the real estate registration departments to stop issuing deeds until the audit is done. Hassan Khalil said that around 570,000 square meters of the state’s public property has been transferred to scattered owners between 2001 and 2013, a period that saw a computerization program at government departments, saying that there are efforts underway to determine how much land was appropriated in the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. before computerization.

Figures of the Finance Ministry show that 3.247 million square meters of undeveloped state property has been sold between 2001 and 2014, including 9.4 percent in Mount Lebanon, 4 percent in Beirut, 32.6 percent in the North, 0.3 percent in Nabatiyeh, 37 percent in the South, and 16.5 percent in the Bekaa. The figures also show that 327,000 square meters of built state properties were sold, including 24.7 percent in Mount Lebanon, 10 percent in Beirut, 1.2 percent in the North, 10.4 percent in Nabatiyeh, 46.5 percent in the South, and 6.11 percent in the Bekaa. The plots sold from parts belonging to the state jointly with other owners were estimated at 51,000 square meters.

Electronic data shows that the undeveloped plots still owned by the state have an area of 26.7 million square meters, including 0.7 percent in Mount Lebanon, 0.03 percent in Beirut, 1.5 percent in the North, 0.4 percent in Nabatiyeh, 0.6 percent in the South, and 97.5 percent in the Bekaa. Developed real estate owned by the state is estimated to be 9.484 million square meters, in addition to 48,000 square meters jointly owned with others.

There are 15,721 real estate plots owned by the state according to Finance Ministry figures registered without specifying their size, including 1,734 plots in Mount Lebanon, 49 in Beirut, 435 in the North, 2,646 in Nabatiyeh, 1,606 in the South, and 9,251in the Bekaa. Figures confirm that sales of such plots involved 1,069 plots, 971 in Mount Lebanon, 46 in Beirut, 281 in the North, 9 in Nabatiyeh, 41 in the South, and 21 in the Bekaa.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

come on guys, Al Akbar Team this is where you take on your profession - hold those accountable and bring justice to your(our land + nature andd stop the mafia from taking hold - we already have the revolting disgusting barbaric french putting heir slimy sleazy noses, we have the insane barbaric cowboys, we have the brothel boys of gcc+their zionised gangs and if this insidious lot wasn't enough we have the hideous nefarious UNIFIL and their mafia dons.
Look at Kenya – the mafia thugs with their Zionists goons have turned our beautiful Mombasa,Lamu Malindi ....... all infested with ugly disgusting Italian mafia. They are not allowed to build on the sea front in Italy but absolute idiots/jerks like flavio briatore's resort "lion in the sun"- Malindi Kenya these cancerous viral polluters are destroying the nature/environment
The mafia has taken a disturbing interest in our paradise Lebanon.
Act now and stop this viral cancer.
U know their vile ideology too well
oh by the way, this is soo common even in UK. the next door chasnged the boundary the local authority was where the nect door's family worked. when complaint was sent to the registry office/local authority gov - none took any action! the local authority "lost" the file case!
how can you lose an electronic file?
they deleted it, the next door converted a three bedroom house to 2 flats and was renting it out, without obtaining the local authority permission!

You are all fire but too chicken to even post a name.afraid the mafia will knock on your door?

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