US court ruling opens door for Lebanese banks to be prosecuted on foreign soil
Lebanon's financial institutions have evaded any responsibility for their role in the crisis gripping the nation, and have instead placed the burden on regular citizens
By News Desk - December 17 2022

FILE – A bank was set ablaze by protesters at Al Nour Square in Tripoli, Lebanon. (Photo credit: Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE)

A US court of appeals in New York has ruled that cases against Lebanese commercial banks can be tried outside Lebanon, opening up the possibility for depositors to hold banks accountable for their role in the country’s devastating financial collapse.

The court’s decision, issued on 15 December in a case brought against Bank Audi, overturned a previous ruling that said Lebanese courts had “exclusive jurisdiction” in these cases.

The original lawsuit was filed in 2020 by the Raad family in New York’s Supreme Court, alleging Bank Audi breached their contract by denying them access to $17 million they had in savings at the onset of the man-made crisis.

Lawyer Nada Abdelsater, who represents the Raad family, said the court’s decision “made history” and could allow them to proceed with the case against Bank Audi.

“The door is now open, and the real action begins,” she told Reuters.

“This decision rightly removes the main obstacle that has so far been preventing cases from being taken up … and this New York decision allows us to further pursue proceedings in competent courts outside of Lebanon,” the lawyer added.

Bank Audi did not provide any comment on the news. Jeffrey Rotenberg, a lawyer representing the bank, called the decision “non-precedential.”

Lebanese banks have imposed strict capital controls on both US dollars and Lebanese lira accounts since 2019, when Lebanon’s economy imploded thanks to years of corruption and mismanagement in the financial sector.

This decision has effectively blocked depositors from accessing  their savings for the past three years, in a situation that earlier this year devolved into a wave of bank heists by desperate citizens.

According to an investigation by the World Bank, politicians and their financiers hollowed out public services to enrich themselves and those around them over decades. When the economy finally collapsed in 2019, instead of assuming the losses, bank owners blocked depositors from accessing their savings.

Earlier this year the UN accused the Lebanese central bank of “human rights violations” for its role in setting the stage for this crisis, which plunged four out of every five Lebanese citizens below the poverty line.

Many banks in Lebanon are under investigation for their dealings with the Central Bank and its Governor, Riad Salameh, which involve the illicit transfer of billions of dollars abroad during the financial collapse.

Salameh himself is wanted by Lebanese prosecutors, but has evaded capture thanks to the protection of US ambassador Dorothy Shea and Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate, billionaire Najib Mikati.

The central bank chief is also under investigation for money laundering and embezzlement of public funds in France, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein.

This month alone, two of Salameh’s girlfriends were accused of taking part in his corruption scheme: Ukrainian national Anna Kosakova and Lebanese actress Stephanie Saliba.

According to an investigation by The Cradle columnist Lea Azzi, since 1997, Salameh has personally taken all the measures and made all the decisions that led to Lebanon’s economic collapse.

These include executing financial engineering that doubled the profits of bank owners and increased the state’s debt; concealing the losses of the banking sector; applying subsidies to imports of fuel, medicine, and wheat, and then raising prices before finding an alternative for citizens; and finally, of participating in currency market speculation which wiped out the life savings of millions.

Despite the scope and impact of the crisis, Lebanese politicians and heads of financial institutions have resisted implementing economic reforms — such as laws on money laundering — that would unlock funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Critics believe that by leaving the laws vague, politically well-connected Lebanese have been able to get their money out of the country.

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