Judiciary in the spotlight

Ghada Aoun, scandals aside

Mount Lebanon’s prosecutor is fiercely criticized by some, who accuse her of high-handed methods in the service of a particular political camp, and praised by others, who see the judge to be bringing down the bastions of impunity. But who is Ghada Aoun, really? L’Orient-Le Jour investigates.

Ghada Aoun, scandals aside

Mount Lebanon prosecutor Ghada Aoun on the balcony of her apartment. (Credit: Marie-Jo Sader)

Note: In light of Judge Aoun's dismissal Thursday, we're republishing this investigation from April 2022. 

“Are you cold?” she asked. “Shall I bring you the deffeyeh [gas heater]?” Temperatures are particularly low this March and, like most Lebanese houses, severe power rationing is evident during the visit to Judge Ghada Aoun’s flat.

“That’s enough, Teddy!” she shouted, half-joking, at her dog, who kept jumping on the sofa to get his toy back.

There is a peaceful atmosphere at the apartment, located on the top floor of an Achrafieh building, and Mount Lebanon’s prosecutor seems serene.

We did not imagine ourselves to be in the house of someone who regularly makes the headlines by defying conventions and finding herself at the center of many controversies.

A judge has taken “populist and police measures,” which “causes tension in the country.” Prime Minister Najib Mikati did not mince his words after the magistrate froze the assets of several major banks, pressed further charges against Banque du Liban Gov. Riad Salameh, and detained his brother, Raja.

While a large segment of the population blames the banking system and Riad Salameh — who is also being probed abroad — for Lebanon’s bankruptcy, the prosecutor, who is said to be unmanageable, keeps reigniting debates around the independence of her actions.

The judge is regularly accused of serving Michel Aoun’s agenda as the president seeks to restore his image, tarnished by the multiple crises in the country, before his term ends.

“She wants to play the cowboy game but we are not the Wild West! Just look at the cases she pleads: 90 percent of them go in the same direction,” said Alexandre Najjar, the lawyer of the Mecattaf cash transfer company that is also in Aoun’s sights.

“What does it matter if I sympathize with the president? It has nothing to do with my work at all. The political parties might well call me, and they all do but, believe me, I never obey,” said the 65-year-old judge.

Fiercely criticized by some for using cavalier methods in the service of a particular political camp, praised by others those who see the judge as attacking entrenched privilege, Aoun has become the emblem of a deeply polarized Lebanese society.

The pious judge

“I could have been doing my job peacefully, limiting myself to the arrest of petty criminals. But as soon as you touch the big ones, things get complicated!” said Aoun, pouring herself a cup of coffee before sitting on the sofa.

Flooded with light, the judge’s living room is fitted with sober bourgeois furniture. Contrary to what you might expect from someone who expresses her faith publicly, there is no religious decoration — save the face of the Virgin Mary engraved in white marble, sitting on a corner table.

On one wall, a painting catches the eye. It depicts a couple, sitting next to each other, arm-in-arm. The man, wearing a chapka fur hat gazes straight ahead, while the woman, her head turned slightly to the left, smiles. They are her parents Georges and Rahida.

The daughter of a merchant father and a mother who taught at a public school, Aoun grew up in Beirut in a Christian environment. Though she now regularly attends prayer group meetings, she says she wasn’t always a believer.

In 1976, when she was not even 20 years old, she fled the massacre in the village of Damour, where her family had decided to settle.

“The Palestinians entered the houses and sprayed entire families with bullets. I hid and asked God to give me a chance to believe in Him before I died. Miraculously, the fighters did not enter our street. Since then, I have surrendered my life to the Lord.”

As she recounts this event, her blue eyes widen and her voice grows animated. Faith is also a means to recover from the trauma of a long Civil War that had “drained her strength” but also “taught her a lot” about the need for forgiveness.

“I didn’t miss any conferences on reconciliation. I even went to therapy. Many Lebanese are not healed. It is the great misfortune of this country.” Aoun grew up in a house free of religious fanaticism, as her parents were rather fond of the socialist ideals of Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt.

But when the civil war broke out, the massacres turned this sympathy into hatred, and the family turned to the Kataeb before moving away from that party as well.

“Their actions did not inspire security in us,” said the judge. Affected by their abuses, in 1989 the family rallied behind Gen. Michel Aoun, in whom they saw a providential man capable of bringing the country out of the militia order.

“It’s a loyalty that has never flagged. He set out just principles, such as the fight against Syrian occupation, which were later espoused by others,” she said, before erupting into nervous laughter when asked about President Aoun’s rapprochement with the Damascus regime shortly after the occupiers’ exit in 2005.

“It was a shock, yes, but we can’t stay at war.” She reflected, then added, “Anyway, I don’t agree with everything he does. I also have my freedom of thought.”

The ‘dissident’ judge

It was during the Syrian occupation, when she was not yet under the media spotlight, that she built a reputation as a rebel in judicial circles.

From Tripoli to Zahle and Beirut, her years-long career that started in 1981 led her to a multitude of posts; even if she had to wait for the end of the Syrian tutelage to hold prestigious posts — including that of a judge in the Court of Cassation and president of the Criminal Court of Zahle.

At that time, it was impossible for judges to make a name for themselves without the approval of Ghazi Kanaan, the notorious head of the Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon.

“That’s why I was marginalized for 25 years. I never tried to please anyone in order to get a higher rank,” she said.

“They often brought decisions to release a criminal that they expected me to sign blindly, and I refused of course. It drove them crazy,” she recalled.

“I used to read the legal opinions she gave during the Syrian tutelage, and she is someone who made very courageous decisions, beautiful dissents,” said a former justice minister.

Aoun is known in particular for the MTV case in 2002. When the print media court ordered the closure of the TV channel for violating electoral law provisions prohibiting political advertising during the campaign, she was the only judge to oppose it.

“MTV’s messages did not directly encourage people to vote for Gabriel Murr (MTV owner and opposition candidate), and the closure ruling was not for a limited period of time: It was unfair. So I challenged the decision, and then-President Emile Lahoud, who initiated the proceedings, got angry with me.” The battle was lost, however, and MTV closed for three years after the case.

Did this long period, during which her legal opinions were rarely followed, frustrated Aoun and compel her to fight later?

Aoun’s career took a leap in 2017 when she was appointed Mount Lebanon prosecutor with the approval of the head of state, as is customary for this post since 1943.

“From the moment I took office, I decided to open tough cases,” said the judge, adding that she is driven by the interest of a people “suffering from too many injustices.”

Does the end justify the means? Aoun’s methods do not fail to cause embarrassment, sometimes even within the judiciary. We remember in particular her spectacular and highly publicized searches of the headquarters of the Mecattaf Holding Group in April 2021, as part of her investigations into massive money transfers abroad.

Having been denied access to the premises, the judge forced her way in, escorted and cheered by overjoyed supporters.

“The expert I appointed was fired three times by the company before I decided to go there myself,” she said.

This episode nevertheless caused her to be summoned by the Judicial Inspection Authority, which did not censure her action. “They found nothing against me. I am a prosecutor. It is my right to search and use force when someone refuses to comply,” said the judge.

Beyond the internal turmoil, this raid, which was accompanied by the Free Patriotic Movement’s (FPM) activists, also provoked the wrath of a large segment of public opinion.

“I never asked these people to accompany me. I even made phone calls to get them to leave,” she said.

“She did call [FPM leader] Gebran Bassil to ask them to leave,” confirmed a lawyer, as well as other sources interviewed.

“But she could have waited for them to disperse. It is a form of naivety: She does not see that it does not serve her cases,” he added.

“Ghada Aoun is a bit of a pasionaria [literally “passion flower,” a reference to Dolores Ibárruri, a Republican politician during the Spanish Civil War] who presents herself as the ‘mother of the people.’ She can quickly get carried away,” said a lawyer who worked with her.

For journalist and activist Charbel Khoury, it is another side of her character that was compelling. In 2018, the judge banned him from expressing himself on social media for a month, following a Facebook post that the Maronite Church considered outrageous.

“She told me later that she did it for my own interest, as if she were my mother,” he said. “She doesn’t work according to the law but according to her emotions.”

Taking decisions that normally fall under the jurisdiction of the investigating judge, making multiple interventions on social media or refusing to receive requests to be removed from a case, the judge would care little about the prerogatives she allegedly exceeded in many cases.

“She is a very clean judge, but she seeks justice outside the law and this is prohibited,” said Sakhr el-Hachem, a lawyer of some of the banks currently accused of wrongdoing.

“Judge Aoun has an impeccable professional and moral record. It is her decisions that I criticize,” explained Akram Azouri, who represents the Association of Banks of Lebanon and some other institutions Aoun is pursuing.

In mid-March, he filed a legal request to dismiss Ghada Aoun from the case, and a lawsuit against the state for the judge’s gross misconduct, motivated by the fact that some of her decisions (the freezing of assets, travel bans) “do not fall within the prosecutor’s jurisdiction.”

“Certainly, she sometimes goes beyond her prerogatives. But her actions are more marred with populism and she is not the only judge whose practices exceed the laws in the current climate,” a law professor said.

“She lacks rigor but she has the merit of having shaken up [the judiciary to expose people]. She may have shaken it badly, but imagine if Ghada Aoun did not exist today. Would you hear about judicial files of this type in Lebanon?”

Anti-corruption champion or motivated judge?

For several years, the Mount Lebanon prosecutor has sought to keep the promise she made to herself by taking an anti-corruption stance.

In October 2019, at the very beginning of the thawra, she filed a lawsuit against billionaire politician Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s premier since September 2021, and Bank Audi for illicit enrichment via subsidized housing loans.

“It was the first time that the law on illicit enrichment had been applied since it was promulgated in 1953,” said Nizar Saghieh, the founder of Legal Agenda.

It is a precedent that provoked the wrath of public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, who some suspected of protecting the interests of the ruling classes.

“He yelled at her because she dared lay into a former prime minister,” says a jurist who declined to be named.

From that moment on, the country’s top prosecutor was at war with the Mount Lebanon prosecutor. He closed the case and temporarily sanctioned the judge, encouraging the security apparatus to ignore her orders henceforth.

She did not give up. Two months later, she had Hoda Salloum, the former director-general of the Traffic and Vehicles Management Authority — a cousin of Hady Hobeiche— a member of the Future parliamentary bloc, arrested for illicit enrichment.

Hobeiche was so incensed he went so far as to burst into her office at the Justice Palace and call her a “militia” assassin in the pay of the FPM.

Although the fight against corruption is a key demands of the Oct. 17, 2019 protest movement, Aoun’s action has been denounced as that of a “politicized” judge who selectively enforces justice — only going after the state’s opponents while neglecting other files that may involve Hezbollah or its Christian allies.

“Perhaps Ghada Aoun could have opened these cases, but those she has on the radar are not there arbitrarily. Even if she has a political color, she does not take orders,” Saghieh said.

Indeed, her judicial actions have not spared those close to Michel Aoun’s camp. Her investigations into corruption in the public administration in 2019 led to the dismissal or resignation of many army officers and judges, including Peter Germanos, who was known at the time for being close to the FPM (from which he has since distanced himself).

“Gebran Bassil angrily lashed out at her at the time,” according to several sources interviewed.

In March 2020, she sued Michel Daher, a member of the Strong Lebanon bloc (who left the bloc in August 2020), and his son for financial fraud.

Two months later, the magistrate imprisoned Aurore Feghali — the number two official at the Energy Ministry, who is close to the president’s son-in-law — for alleged involvement in the tainted fuel imports scandal.

“From what we have seen, Ghada Aoun’s files are based on solid evidence. The Sonatrach file is among the leading probes in corruption cases conducted in Lebanon,” said Saghieh.

“If she is attacked, it is also because she is challenging a mafia system that has a lot of money and media control,” he added.

“Finally, [whether Ghada Aoun] is right or wrong, she will be supported by Michel Aoun’s supporters and discredited by his opponents. The sad part is that it is to the advantage of those she is suing,” said the above-mentioned former minister.

In the eyes of those who advocate non-partisan justice, Aoun is still perceived as a representative of a system that needs to be reformed.

“From Ghada Aoun to Ghassan Oueidat, I cannot trust judges appointed by politicians, I will always question their decisions,” a judge said.

Three years before her retirement, nothing seems to discourage Aoun.

“When you take on the giants of corruption, you will face enormous hurdles. But even if sometimes I don’t succeed, I start again,” said the prosecutor, who just came back from a silent Easter retreat dedicated to prayer.

“It does me a world of good every time,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief. “You’ll laugh, but I pray a lot for the cases. I ask God to do what he can, and I do my part...” 

Note: In light of Judge Aoun's dismissal Thursday, we're republishing this investigation from April 2022. “Are you cold?” she asked. “Shall I bring you the deffeyeh [gas heater]?” Temperatures are particularly low this March and, like most Lebanese houses, severe power rationing is evident during the visit to Judge Ghada Aoun’s flat.“That’s enough, Teddy!” she shouted,...