The Daily Star
BEIRUT: The Lebanese authorities lifted the banking secrecy on 13 bank accounts for suspicion of money laundering, terrorism funding and financial embezzlement in 2014 and are investigating more cases, the Special Investigation Commission said.
The SIC, which was founded in 2001 to investigate money laundering activities, terrorism financing and all forms of embezzlement, said in its annual report that the prosecution office ordered the lifting of banking secrecy on these accounts.
The report said that the SIC received 277 cases, 76 of which came from foreign sources and 201 from local sources. There are still 73 pending cases which need to be investigated, according to the SIC.
But the commission did not disclose the total amount of the frozen accounts or the names of individuals and groups possibly involved in these illegal activities.
In 2013, the Lebanese authorities lifted the banking secrecy on 17 bank accounts.
In a letter to the SIC published in the report, Central Bank governor Riad Salameh praised the work of the commission.
“Throughout the year, ML [money laundering] and TF [terrorism funding] cases handled by the SIC resulted in lifting banking secrecy in 13 cases that were forwarded to the general prosecutor. Furthermore, compliance examinations carried out by the SIC, and the sharing of findings with concerned reporting entities continues to enhance compliance programs and controls at reporting entities,” Salameh said.
He added that in September 2014, the Central Bank basic circular number 83 was amended to strengthen the anti-money laundering compliance function at the branch level within banks and finance companies.
The SIC receives on a regular basis reports of suspected money laundering cases from countries and international organizations.
The SIC is obliged to investigate every complaint it receives and recommend the lifting of banking secrecy on any suspicious accounts.
The United States is one of the most active countries in the world in reporting to the Lebanese authorities suspected money laundering cases.
The U.S., the United Nations and many Western nations are also pursuing funding of terrorism organizations such as ISIS. Lebanese banks also must freeze the accounts of any individual or group linked to Hezbollah, which is labeled a terrorist group by Washington.
The report gave a summary of some of the cases that were investigated. SIC said that it investigated a non-Lebanese citizen suspected of links to terrorist groups.
“The SIC received a request of assistance from the Lebanese general prosecutor concerning a non-Lebanese national residing in Lebanon charged with being affiliated with several terrorist groups and for being linked to a number of terrorist attacks that took place on Lebanese soil against military outposts,” the report said.
It added that the suspect made several bank transactions and deposits, prompting authorities to freeze all his accounts.
“The SIC decided to lift banking secrecy off related bank accounts, freeze them and forward the findings to the general prosecutor,” the report explained.
The other cases which prompted authorities to freeze accounts involved embezzlement of private funds, Internet fraud, corruption, drug trafficking and fraud.
Last year, the SIC and prosecution office froze the accounts of a well-known furniture company in Lebanon. Unconfirmed reports said a relative of Syrian President Bashar Assad channeled millions of dollars through this firm to some Lebanese banks.
The United States has urged all international financial institutions to freeze the accounts of Assad and all his aides for their part in the bloody Syrian war.
Lebanese bankers repeatedly say that they will fully comply with all international resolutions concerning money laundering and terrorism financing and for this reason, there is no justification to remove the banking secrecy on all bank accounts.