Anti-corruption crusader or political lackey? The controversial judge at the heart of Lebanon’s latest judicial saga

Anti-corruption crusader or political lackey? The controversial judge at the heart of Lebanon’s latest judicial saga

Judge Ghada Aoun has on at least three separate occasions raided the offices of the Mecattaf Holding Group. (Credit: Marc Fayad)

BEIRUT — Amid the raft of mid-level appointees who make up the Lebanese judiciary, Judge Ghada Aoun has established herself as a widely recognizable public figure.

The Mount Lebanon public prosecutor surged into the public consciousness yet again recently after raiding — on at least three separate occasions — the offices of the Mecattaf Holding Group, defying an order from Lebanon’s top prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, that removed her from financial crimes cases. The wholesale money exchange group is part of investigations into money laundering and illicit enrichment allegedly conducted by some of Lebanon’s top-level financial officials, including central bank Gov. Riad Salameh and leading banking institution Société Générale de Banque au Liban.

A Maronite Christian from the town of Damour, Aoun was appointed to her current position in 2017 by a decree signed by President Michel Aoun, the founder of the Free Patriotic Movement. (She and the president are not related.)

All senior judges in Lebanon are appointed by presidential decree in line with Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing systems, with the heads of certain courts reserved for members of a particular sect.

Accusations that Aoun is a political lackey of the president and the FPM have dogged her since her appointment.

“Ghada Aoun is being used by the FPM as political propaganda,” Fady Saad, a lawyer and the secretary of the political office of the Future Movement, an adversary of the president and the FPM, told L’Orient Today. “In my opinion, she is mixing politics and judicial work.”

Indeed, many of Aoun’s major cases have aligned with the FPM’s political goals, including investigations into Salameh — an ally of Future Movement head and Premier-designate Saad Hariri — and other FPM opponents or critics.

Her supporters attribute this not to political bias but to an effort on Judge Aoun’s part to fight against Lebanon’s endemic corruption

“As a person, the judge likes Gen. Aoun. That’s not hidden,” said Wadih Akl, a lawyer and member of the FPM’s political office who has worked closely with Aoun.

But, he told L’Orient Today, “I can assure you that even if President Aoun told Ghada Aoun to stop a file, she would say no.”

Due to the highly politicized nature of Lebanon’s judiciary, it is difficult to separate these appraisals from the politics so often behind them.

According to Nabil Sari, a retired investigative judge who worked alongside Aoun in Lebanon’s appeals court for more than a decade, the sectarian nature of the Lebanese justice system means it is impossible to escape political influence in senior positions.

“No one gets to a high position in the judiciary for nothing,” he said.

Rizk Zgheib, a law professor at St. Joseph University, echoed Sari: “It is a political decision to put a judge in this position. … It is the custom that the Mount Lebanon prosecutor be linked to the presidency.”

Aoun’s raids of the Mecattaf offices are no different, having renewed accusations against her of bias and reignited simmering tensions between the FPM and the Future Movement. The group’s owner, Michel Mecattaf, funds the newspaper Nidaa al-Watan, which is known for its opposition to the FPM, and the raids were conducted despite the order from Oueidat, who is seen as a Hariri ally.

While the FPM argued Aoun was standing up for the judiciary and defending the rights of the Lebanese people, a Future statement described Aoun’s behavior as “a coup against the constitution and the democratic system.”

In the early days of the Mecattaf case, after Aoun refused to follow Oueidat’s removal order, caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm said the public fallout, which fell broadly along party lines, was clear evidence of the judiciary’s politicization.

"The judiciary ... showed itself incapable of fighting corruption,” Najm said. “The people see that one judge belongs to one political camp, and the other judge to another.”

Aoun declined to be interviewed for this story. But in the past she has said she works for everyone in the “name of justice,” fashioning herself as a crusader against corruption. Her WhatsApp profile picture reads, “Enough judicial corruption. We are all united for justice with Ghada Aoun”; her Twitter bio is a quote by US civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

What can a review of Aoun's judicial history tell us about the motivations behind the current case?

Ties to the FPM

Before being appointed the Mount Lebanon public prosecutor in 2017, Aoun was seen as an “independent” judge who “worked by the book,” Zgheib said.

She flew mostly under the radar, says Antoine Sfeir, a lawyer and constitutional law expert. “Before 2017 she was a regular judge, and we didn’t really hear anything bad about her,” he told L’Orient Today. “She certainly didn’t have the same exposure,” he added.

Perhaps her most notable early decision came as part of a three-judge panel that was deciding whether to shut down MTV in September 2002, during the period of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. The TV news station was accused by the pro-Syrian government of then-President Emile Lahoud of violating a law against publishing political propaganda during elections, after broadcasting content favorable toward its owner, Gabriel Murr, who was running as an opposition candidate for Parliament.

Aoun voted to oppose the closure, although her two colleagues ruled in favor of the shutdown, which ultimately went ahead. MTV remained off air until April 2009.

Since Aoun’s ascendance to Mount Lebanon public prosecutor, many of her cases have been painted as aligning with the interests of the president and the FPM.

In October 2019, Aoun initiated a case against the billionaire and former Premier Najib Mikati, his son Maher, nephew Azmi and Bank Audi, in which Mikati is a former shareholder. They were accused of making illegitimate gains for allegedly taking out millions of dollars in subsidized housing loans meant to help people who could not otherwise afford to buy homes. An adviser to Mikati said at the time that the accusations were politically motivated following the former prime minister’s criticism of the president and support for the mass protests against the ruling class.

All four denied the charges.

Then, too, Oueidat attempted to block Aoun’s investigations, ordering security forces to stop referring cases to her and claiming she had “overstepped” her authority by pressing charges without consulting him beforehand. The case went no further.

Two months later, Aoun charged Hoda Salloum, the head of the traffic and vehicles management authority and a relative of Future Movement MP Hadi Hobeiche, with alleged bribery and waste of public funds.

Hobeiche, a lawyer, accused Aoun of arresting Salloum unlawfully and stormed her office in the Baabda Justice Palace, screaming in her face, describing her as a “symbol of corruption” and accusing her of pro-FPM bias. The pair then exchanged defamation lawsuits, eventually leading to Hobeiche’s three-month suspension from practicing law and Aoun being summoned before the Judicial Inspection Authority.

Aoun has appeared before the Judicial Inspection Authority on several occasions after complaints were lodged against her. Recently, Antoun Sehnaoui, the chair and CEO of SGBL, which is embroiled in the Mecattaf case, accused the judge of slander after she charged him with being complicit in illegal money transfers abroad.

However, the authority has never ruled that Aoun’s actions have merited referral to the disciplinary council — a separate body that could take punitive measures against or dismiss Aoun.

Aoun has also been accused of suppressing freedom of speech. Following the outbreak of mass protests in October 2019, Aoun summoned and arrested several demonstrators for blocking roads, in addition to activists and journalists, many of whom were accused of criticizing the president or FPM leader Gebran Bassil.

Aoun also took legal action against the economist Hasan Moukalled and Josephine Dib, a journalist with pro-FPM channel OTV, for criticizing senior members of the Progressive Socialist Party.

In the past year, Aoun has pursued 10 journalists and activists for alleged defamation, according to Jad Shahrour, a communications officer at the Samir Kassir Foundation for media freedoms.

What is notable about her case portfolio, according to those opposed to her actions, is not the outcome of the cases, but that the accused seem to fall largely on one side of the aisle.

“It is obvious that she is one of the tools that Michel Aoun and his party use for repression and to make people keep their mouths shut,” Shahrour said.

“Ghada Aoun is executing the same agenda as that of the FPM and the president,” Sfeir said. He added that this does not mean her investigations are necessarily illegitimate or inopportune, but that the judge must ensure she is not selective with the cases she pursues.

According to Saad, “most of the cases Aoun is choosing are political. … When the FPM wants to file a lawsuit against someone, they go to Aoun.”

In May 2020, she charged 12 people for their involvement in the so-called tainted fuel scandal, when fuel thought to be imported by the Algerian state company Sonatrach had actually come via subcontractors. Multiple fuel shipments were found to be substandard, damaging Lebanon’s power plants.

Among those charged was the Energy Ministry’s oil director, Aurore Feghali, who is close to the FPM. Akl, the FPM political office member, points to this ruling as evidence that Aoun is not always protecting the party’s interests.

“If she were working for the FPM, she would never have charged Aurore Feghali,” he said.

Feghali was arrested and detained before being released and returning to work. However, other high-level officials affiliated with the FPM did not face charges, including the caretaker and other former energy ministers who signed and renewed the contract with Sonatrach; the Energy Ministry has been tied to the FPM and its allies for more than a decade.

Akl cited as another example of Aoun’s fairness corruption charges brought by the judge against the driver of former Military Prosecutor Peter Germanos, who was considered close to the party and former Justice Minister Salim Jreissati, as another example of Aoun’s non-bias.

During 2019 investigations into corruption within the judiciary and the Internal Security Forces, the Information Branch alleged that Germanos’ driver had been acting illegally as a mediator between judges and clients. While Aoun did not charge Germanos, the Judicial Inspection Authority recommended his suspension a few months later for allegedly accepting bribes and referred him to the disciplinary council.

Germanos was not suspended at the time, but stepped down in February 2020, citing “family reasons.”

The latest saga

Aoun’s latest probe into the alleged transfer of billions of dollars overseas has centered on Salameh, SGBL and Mecattaf, Lebanon's largest exchange company.

The judge has charged Mecattaf and SGBL with withdrawing dollars from the market and sending them abroad, while she charged Salameh with dereliction of duty and breach of trust related to his management of dollars meant to fund subsidies on essential goods. (SGBL and Salameh have denied the charges.)

The target of her investigations appears to align with the political agenda of President Aoun, who has put “the war on corruption” and a forensic audit of state institutions at the center of his rhetoric, accusing Salameh of being responsible for the country’s financial collapse.

As part of its self-proclaimed anti-corruption agenda, the FPM has introduced a raft of draft laws aiming at fighting corruption, including a law to recover funds obtained fraudulently and another to lift banking secrecy, with MP Ibrahim Kanaan, the head of Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee, at the forefront of the campaign.

On April 15, Oueidat, who outranks Aoun, reshuffled cases in the Mount Lebanon district, removing Aoun from cases related to financial crimes and stopping her investigation into Mecattaf, Salameh and SGBL. Oueidat had made the decision at the request of the Supreme Judicial Council, an administrative body that oversees the judiciary, following multiple complaints against Aoun, including the one filed by Sehnaoui, SGBL’s head.

Early the next week, the council doubled down on its decision, calling on Aoun to comply with Oueidat’s ruling and step aside. Nevertheless, she continued her probe, considering Oueidat’s order illegal.

Legal experts disagree about the decision’s legality. Issam Sleiman, the former head of the Constitutional Council, said Aoun should decide which judges within her district are assigned to which cases.

However, former Public Prosecutor Hatem Madi told our sister publication, L’Orient-Le Jour, that as Aoun’s hierarchical superior, Ouediat has the authority to distribute cases “to whoever he wants.”

Over the course of six days, Aoun conducted successive raids on the Mecattaf company offices, accompanied first by State Security and later FPM protesters, forcibly making her way in, cutting open padlocks on the door and refusing to leave without the evidence she was looking for.

“This is her character — she is very brave,” the FPM’s Akl said. “Even though everyone was waiting for the decision of the Supreme Judicial Council, she went by herself and continued the investigation. She is doing things.”

Saad of the Future Movement said Aoun’s behavior was indicative of a lack of professionalism and further proof that she was working with political motives.

“Just because she considers herself to be supporting the Lebanese people with her work, she can’t behave like this,” he said. “If an ordinary person had broken down the door of private property and stormed in with their supporters, they’d go to jail.”

Aoun left the offices on April 21, the day after the Supreme Judicial Council’s ruling, having loaded up her private car with computers and files that she believes will reveal who is responsible for the smuggling of dollars overseas. Then, on Friday, after appearing before the Judicial Inspection Authority, she filed a complaint challenging the legality of Oueidat’s order to dismiss her from financial cases in Mount Lebanon.

At almost midnight on Monday, Aoun was reported to have visited the offices for a fourth time after hearing that the judge assigned to take over the case, Samer Licha, had gone there to investigate reports that the red wax seal on the company’s doors had been removed. Aoun reportedly left after 30 minutes.

According to Sfeir, it appears Aoun “really wants to achieve something in the financial files and is very concerned with the problem of money transfers after Oct. 17,” when mass protests broke out against the ruling elite, prompting banks to close their doors.

“The goals are very fair,” he continued, “but the problem is how she is doing it.”

A judiciary politicized

While experts interviewed for this article remain divided on their appraisal of the public image of Ghada Aoun as an anti-corruption crusader — as cultivated by both Aoun herself and her supporters — they generally agree that the issue at the heart of the Mecattaf controversy goes beyond the judge and her case history.

“The problem is the non-action of some judges, on one hand, and the political affiliation of others on the other hand,” Sfeir said. “Unfortunately, [Aoun] is the only one to act,” despite her methods being “inappropriate.”

“Even if she had the best intentions in the world, [Aoun] will always end up being attacked, because her politicization provokes people,” Nizar Saghieh, the founder of the NGO Legal Agenda, told L’Orient-Le Jour.

Like Najm, the judges and lawyers who spoke with L’Orient Today agreed that Aoun’s dismissal from the case and the subsequent fallout was symptomatic of the politicization of the judiciary and highlighted the need for its independence.

Earlier this month, as the Mecattaf case unfolded, the Lebanese Judges’ Association issued a statement saying that the “only salvation” for the Lebanese justice system is the independence of the judiciary.

Following Oueidat’s dismissal of Aoun, Saghieh hit out at lawmakers for failing to pass a law to establish the independence of the judiciary that was formulated in coordination with Legal Agenda and has been sitting with Parliament’s Administration and Justice Committee since 2018.

“The justice system and the judicial power are always under heavy political pressure from one side or another,” Sfeir said. “Political influence on the judiciary must be withdrawn immediately.”

BEIRUT — Amid the raft of mid-level appointees who make up the Lebanese judiciary, Judge Ghada Aoun has established herself as a widely recognizable public figure.The Mount Lebanon public prosecutor surged into the public consciousness yet again recently after raiding — on at least three separate occasions — the offices of the Mecattaf Holding Group, defying an order from Lebanon’s top...