BEIRUT — Judge Ghada Aoun has secured computer servers and documents believed to hold information that is crucial to investigations of money laundering and illicit enrichment allegedly carried out by the Mecattaf Holding Group, a lawyer with knowledge of the case told L’Orient Today.
The lawyer, Rami Ollaik, who founded the alliance United for Lebanon, said forensic analysts will now delve into the information to ascertain a clearer picture of Mecattaf’s involvement in the operation.
United for Lebanon has accused Mecattaf, Lebanon’s largest money shipping company, of involvement in a scheme that allegedly saw dollars that had been injected into the Lebanese market by the central bank, supposedly to stabilize the local currency, shipped abroad.
The dollars were distributed to money exchange shops, which allegedly sold them to banks, which in turn are accused of sending them outside the country, Ollaik said.
“These operations led to depositors’ money being seized and the deterioration of the exchange rate,” Ollaik claimed, adding that top-level financial officials including BDL Gov. Riad Salameh were allegedly aware of the operation.
The alliance has also accused the local bank Société Générale de Banque au Liban of participating in this scheme and shipping funds abroad through Mecattaf in collusion with the central bank.
SGBL and Salameh have denied the allegations.
“Initial findings from the data we collected from Mecattaf show suspicious operations between Oct. 10, 2019” — just a week before mass protests broke out alleging corruption among Lebanon’s political elite — “and Jan. 9, 2020, when compared with previous years,” Ollaik claimed.
Lebanon is experiencing a liquidity crunch, with foreign currency reserves plummeting by more than $16 billion since the onset of the economic crisis in late 2019. The crunch has led banks to place informal capital controls placed on depositors, but this maneuver has yet to be officially regulated.
Aoun, Mount Lebanon’s chief prosecutor, had on Wednesday seized the folders and computer servers from Mecattaf’s offices during the third raid she had carried out in less than a week.
The judge, flanked by Ollaik and supporters, had stormed the offices despite having been removed from financial crimes cases late last week by Lebanon’s top public prosecutor, Judge Ghassan Oueidat.
Oueidat’s decision was upheld by the Supreme Judicial Council, the country’s court oversight body, on Tuesday, days after her second attempted raid of Mecattaf, and her case was referred to the Judicial Inspection Authority for potential punitive measures.
Ollaik said his group has now filed a counter motion against Oueidat, asking the authority to dismiss him from his post.
Pending the Judicial Inspection Authority’s decisions on both cases, Aoun can carry on with her investigation, Ollaik claimed. According to local media outlet LBCI, she is set to be questioned by the Judicial Inspection Authority on Friday.
Aoun was not immediately available for comment Thursday evening.
The dispute between Aoun and Oueidat has garnered significant public attention, being seen as evidence of the judiciary’s politicization and an extension of the eight-month-long cabinet formation standoff between President Michel Aoun and Premier-designate Saad Hariri.
Judge Aoun is seen as allied with the president, while Oueidat is perceived as being aligned with Hariri.
The dispute has spilled into the streets, with supporters from both camps turning out in protests that saw violence between demonstrators and security forces, and caused property damage.
Following a security meeting on Thursday that included caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, the interior minister and other officials, President Aoun warned against property destruction and called for “the return to order.”
Meanwhile, the Future Movement, which is headed by Hariri, released a statement over the weekend describing Aoun’s initial attempted raids of Mecattaf as a sign “of the attempts to complete the coup against the constitution and democratic systems.”