Lebanon’s former aid chief: Millions spent to fund Tripoli fighting

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Ibrahim Bashir, former secretary general of Lebanon's Higher Relief Committee who is now under investigation. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Mohamed Nazzal

Published Wednesday, March 12, 2014

In a moment of surrender, former secretary general of Lebanon’s Higher Relief Committee (HRC), Ibrahim Bashir- who is currently under arrest - recalled his difficulties with former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, chief of the Lebanese army Jean Kahwaji and the army intelligence. He expressed his belief that the battles in Tripoli are officially planned and arranged. He thoroughly believed that divulging his opinion will get him in trouble and it did. There are definitely numerous scandals at the HRC, which the courts must investigate, but citizens have the right to know how their money is being spent and where.

Here are some of the shocking official statements that Bashir gave during ongoing investigations as revealed by sources close to the investigation.

Do you remember the former Secretary General of Lebanon’s Higher Relief Committee (HRC) Ibrahim Bashir, the retired general who was arrested about four months ago and charged with embezzlement and money laundering? What happened to his case?

A few days ago, Beirut’s first investigative judge, Ghassan Oueidat, was still in the process of listening to the testimony of new witnesses in the case. Have the investigations revealed the details that Bashir himself vowed to unearth? Is this case about embezzling with his wife Rajaa Younes and another couple in Africa, Hussein Fawwaz and his wife Zainab al-Sammadi, approximately US$ 4,000,000 of public money, or is that just the tip of the iceberg?

Revealing Bashir’s statements during the investigation serves the public interest, especially in light of talk about political and administrative corruption at the HRC as well as other government agencies.

Many people were surprised at the timing of the decision to withdraw his political and sectarian protection, an uncommon act for senior government officials. This is definitely not a typical Lebanese trait. So what is the real issue at hand?

Bashir denounced the secretary general of the council of ministers, Suheil Bouji, and later on he attacked former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati. It should be noted Mikati is the one who appointed Bashir to head the HRC, and the HRC is under the prime minister’s prerogatives.

Bashir tried before his arrest to cast the issue in a sectarian light. He talked about disagreements within the Sunni community, as he put it, between him on one hand and Bouji and others on the other. A day before his arrest, he told Al-Akhbar : “I have a lot of information about their violations and how they have squandered huge amounts of money. If I am going to go down, so will my enemies.”

We waited for the scandals but nothing emerged. On the contrary, sources told Al-Akhbar that during preliminary investigations, Bashir confessed to committing the crimes he was charged with. The special investigation commission to fight money laundering at Banque du Liban had revealed these crimes through reports that monitor suspicious movements in several bank accounts that belong to the defendants and others linked to them.

Bashir’s health deteriorated after his arrest and he was transferred to a hospital after he confessed to investigators, according to the same sources: “It was a moment of abandonment whose consequences I did not appreciate. May God curse the devil.” So he confessed even though he continued to deny some of the charges against him.

There is information, however, that Bashir divulged during the investigations that cannot be dismissed. Information that perhaps illustrates the issue as a typical story of how and when political and sectarian protection is given and taken away in Lebanon. Here is some of what Bashir said during his interrogation according to sources close to the investigation.

Aid money goes to Merhebi and al-Assir

“During his interrogation with Oueidat on November 19, 2013, Bashir said that he and former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati clashed. The latter, “as prime minister, is head of the HRC but I am its secretary general.” He added: “One reason behind this clash is a disagreement between myself and the chief of the army, Jean Kahwaji, and the fact that Mikati did not allow me to sue his office director. I had sent him a letter in September and I can show you a copy. So I asked my son Wissam, who is married to a Russian woman, to leave the country with his children because he had previously been subject to an assassination attempt in Tripoli.”

Bashir added that another reason for the disagreement between him and Mikati was “the aid that he [Mikati] would ask me, as secretary general of the HRC, for Akkar MP Mouin Merhebi and two people from Salafi cleric Ahmad al-Assir’s group that were killed, in addition to numerous other demands for other politicians.”

When asked about the number of warehouses that belong to the HRC in Lebanon, Bashir said: “There is the main warehouse at the Beirut Port, the warehouses of the Coalition of Islamist Groups, the European Commission’s warehouses and Dar al-Iftaa’s warehouses.” Bashir did not explain what he meant by the warehouses of the Coalition of Islamist Groups - and it appears he was not asked about it. The investigations did not show what the interrogators asked him about the function of these warehouses or even the names of their owners and who is in charge of them.

Bashir was asked during the investigation about the amount of money he spent to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He said: “Between 10 and 12 billion Lebanese liras (LL)” or about $US 7-8 million. But what is Bashir’s explanation for the fact that the Hussein Fawwaz - a defendant in the case who has disappeared - was paid US$ 5 million through his company FAWCO by the HRC, especially that the company won important contracts even though it is a new company that was not registered in the commercial register until April,13 2013. Bashir says: “These amounts were spent from the money allocated for the events in Tripoli, and Mikati asked me to spend money in Tripoli and he signed a paper that read: ‘To be spent from the money allocated for Tripoli.’” He concluded his answer by stating that “LL 23 billion was being spent in Tripoli monthly. The proof is with the minister of finance.”

Wissam al-Hassan or the army?

Prior to appearing before Oueidat, Bashir appeared before Judge Charbel Abu Samra, the public prosecutor of cassation on November 11, 2013 where he was asked: “Activities in your wife’s account at BLOM Bank (which she opened at Bashir’s request) show that she transferred US$ 30.6 million to her account at Fransabank in Belarus. She said she was transferring this amount because of a desire to move and live there fearing the situation in Lebanon. What’s your response?” Bashir gave a long-winded answer that very few people expected. He said: “In July 2013, my son Wissam had an encounter with an armed group in Tripoli for political reasons. The truth is on Easter of last year, I sent Mikati a letter, signed by me, in which I told him that in the process of extending the army chief’s term, some parties are trying to incite feuds in Tripoli that would justify extending Kahwaji’s term. Mikati told the army chief about the letter, which ruined my relationship with Kahwaji.”

Mikati later on called me and told me in front of the army chief, who was present, that Wissam al-Hassan, and not the army chief, is the one trying to create problems in Tripoli. I said that it is Brigadier Amer Hassan, head of the army intelligence in North Lebanon and a confidant of Kahwaji who is behind the clashes. After that, a sergeant from the army intelligence tried to confront me. Even though the issue ended amicably, I was still summoned by the military police for interrogation. I felt as though the ground was being laid for my arrest. I made phone calls at the highest levels and the problem was solved.”

The interrogators did not comment on what Bashir says, not even with further questions. They went back to inquiring about the amount that his wife transferred overseas. Judicial sources familiar with the case told Al-Akhbar that there are a lot of important people in Bashir’s case that could be called in for questioning. But “how can one breach the constitutional and political immunity they enjoy?” This is the million dollar question.

Reparations for the 2006 July War

Two days later, Bashir was brought before the financial prosecutor, Judge Ali Ibrahim, where he gave the following statement: “I took over the HRC two years ago and began dealing with the issue of the Syrian refugees. No budget was set but I asked for LL 10 billion (US$ 6,569,440). When I started work at the HRC, I did not have a hand-over ceremony. I asked the financial official to obtain a statement from the Central Bank to determine the amount of money that belongs to the HRC. I did not find out the exact amount available but most of the money was allocated for compensations for the 2006 war.” Perhaps those in charge should be honest with the people whose homes Israel destroyed and confess that their money was stolen - perhaps not all of it - or was spent for political and partisan reasons in other places.

Bashir is currently under arrest. No indictment has been issued against him yet but there are confessions and mounting evidence. Was the retired general so poor that he resorted to embezzling and laundering money? This question preoccupied some of the interrogators who were surprised at his crimes given his high position and income. Regarding his income, Bashir said in his statement: “I get LL 5 million (US$ 3,284) in pension and another LL 5 million based on a cabinet decision and LL 2 million ($US 1, 333) miscellaneous.” That amounts to LL 12 million ($8,000) in declared monthly income, not to mention what is undeclared.

400 Million in his son’s pocket

Several days ago a fifth name was added to the case but with different details. His name is Wissam Bashir, Ibrahim Bashir’s son, who was charged by the financial public prosecution with embezzlement. There is a search warrant for him but he is overseas. Wissam found out that a group of people received LL 400 million ($266,000) from the HRC. He went to them and found out that they have a sick daughter with special needs. He told them to transfer the money to his personal account and that he will be responsible for her treatment. They believed him, he is, after all, the son of an official in the state. He took the money and fled overseas.

Mikati snitches on Bashir

After news of the scandal spread, but before Bashir was arrested, Mikati sent a letter warning him. The letter stated: “I would like to remind you that what you stated through some media outlets represents a violation of the law. Your duty is to remain silent and not give any statements without prior permission from your immediate superior.” Mikati added in his letter: “Leveling unsubstantiated accusations has gone beyond the limits of an emotional response turning, due to your reckless behavior, into what could be regarded as a penal offense punishable under the penal code. What you did represents a desperate attempt to divert the court from the case which I submitted to the special investigation commission at Banque du Liban, a failed attempt to question the decisions of the HRC, and cast a political light on what you have gotten yourself into. On the other hand, what you have done represents an attempt to incite sectarian and regional tensions.” Mikati ended his letter by pointing out that he will send a copy of this letter to the public prosecution of cassation. That is exactly what happened in addition to other reports against Bashir that Mikati sent to the judiciary as well.

Among the reports that Mikati sent is a letter that he received after Bashir’s arrest that was signed, “Lebanese citizen.” This letter, addressed to Mikati, is now in the hands of the courts. The anonymous citizen says that Bashir “appointed 14 new employees from outside the HRC and without the knowledge of the prime minister, nine of which do not report to the HRC except when they come to collect their salaries under the pretext of offering relief to Syrian refugees.” The “citizen” levels a tremendous amount of accusations at Bashir and describes himself as an employee at the HRC. In other words, they did not mention all these charges except when Bashir was arrested in another case. Judiciary sources following this detail specifically told Al-Akhbar: “It is likely that Bouji, in coordination with one of HRC’s staff composed this report against Bashir.”

Money and administrative corruption

One of the accusations that the “citizen” - who appears to be a well-informed intelligence agent - wrote in their letter: “You can check with the Beirut investigator and learn about Bashir’s role in hiding millions of dollars that his brother-in-law, M.Y., stole from an engineering office in Beirut where he worked as an accountant. When the office owner filed a complaint, lawyer M.D., commissioned by Bashir, intervened to solve the issue because his brother-in-law who was arrested on this charge was working for him. The case was resolved by bringing US$ 1 million from Bashir’s home so his brother in law could be released from prison.”

During the investigation, Bashir denied that this incident happened as it was detailed. It is unknown whether the court took up the issue later as a separate case. It just called the person involved (Bashir’s brother-in-law) and took to his statement, in which he denied what was said in the report. One of the many accusations that the mysterious citizen leveled at Bashir is that he entered corrupt real estate deals in addition, “apartments that his wife bought for exuberant amounts of money that she did not have.”

Among the witnesses that the judge listened to is the disaster operations official at the HRC, I.B., who stated that “he was distributing aid to Syrians and Lebanese living in Syria and that the aid was transported in pick-up trucks and the rations were either in the municipalities or the big trucks that move them. I have nothing to do with the warehouses.”

The mechanization official at the HRC, I.A., said: “the administrative situation at HRC is deplorable. Some checks appear in the disbursements while others do not and bidding for contracts was taking place by mutual consent and sometimes in phoney ways.” It should be mentioned that this illegal method was employed, according to the statements, before Bashir arrived at the HRC and it is not clear whether the mechanism has changed today.

Based on all the varied statements in this case, Bashir appears to be well-suited to the high corruption committee - not the High Relief Committee - in its administrative make-up. The HRC is like many other governmental bodies in Lebanon which perhaps have more than one Bashir, with one difference, their Bashirs have not fallen yet and perhaps never will.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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