Public Prosecutor at the Mount Lebanon Court of Appeal Judge Ghada Aoun pressed charges Monday against the Société Générale de Banque au Liban (SGBL) and its CEO Antoun Sehnaoui over “money laundering,” after they failed to respect her deadline for submitting account statements.
The judge had warned last week that she would prosecute any bank that refused to provide her with the account statements of its chairperson and board members, and those of its auditors and supervisory committees.
The SGBL file has been transferred to the first investigating judge at the Mount Lebanon Court of Appeal, Nicolas Mansour.
After Bank Audi, which suffered the same fate eight days ago, Aoun took her actions up a notch Monday, ordering the seizure of real estate and movable assets belonging to SGBL and Sehnaoui.
The movable assets include bank deposits, according Hassan Bazzi, a lawyer at The People Want Reforms, a collective that files complaints against Lebanon’s banks and bank officials. Aoun’s investigation was motivated by its complaints.
In a statement issued Monday afternoon, SGBL refuted Aoun’s accusations.
“We have not committed any offense, and we affirm our commitment to the anti-money laundering laws,” the statement said. “Judge Aoun issued a null and void decision for political motivations are now known to all… Everyone is aware of who conducts her work and for what purposes, and how the judicial reshuffle was suspended to prevent her dismissal,” the statement added, in reference to intervention from former President Michel Aoun.
“Everyone also knows that she is working contrary to judicial laws and principles and that she is being tried before the Disciplinary Board based on dozens of complaints brought against her before the Judicial Inspection Board.”
In April 2021, the Higher Judicial Council referred judge Ghada Aoun to the Judicial Inspection Board for allegedly refusing to comply with a decision by the Prosecutor General at the Court of Cassation Ghassan Oueidat, to remove her from cases related to financial crimes.
Last year, several complaints were brought against her before the Judicial Inspection Board, including for speaking publicly to the press and for traveling abroad without permission from justice minister Henri Khoury.
SGBL’s statement also called on the Cassation Prosecutor’s Office and HJC to “put an end to the violations of judge Aoun, who destroys the image of justice and threatens national stability.” The banking institution also promised to “use all means of defense to establish the nullity of the judge’s decisions, which are biased and flawed.”
Speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour, judge Aoun said “not all banks refuse to cooperate.”
“As I asked them, Credit Bank and BLOM Bank provided me with data that goes back to 2016, while Saradar Bank promised to do so,” Aoun added.
For its part, the Association of Banks in Lebanon issued a statement Monday evening denouncing, among other things, “the attempts by some judges to give the law on banking secrecy [from November 2022] a retroactive effect dating back to 1988, which is contrary to the legal text and the will of the legislator.”
Curbing the escalation
It is clear that the confrontation between Judge Aoun and the banking sector is growing, while there are consistent reports of all-out attempts made a few days ago to curb the escalation.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati recently received a delegation of bank leaders, who asked him to take action to reduce tensions.
“Our demand is to ensure the good functioning of the judiciary,” Elie Chamoun, a lawyer for ABL, as well as for Bank Audi, BLOM Blank and Byblos Bank, told L’Orient-Le Jour. “A judge must first respect the law,” he said, adding that “contrary to legal rules, Ghada Aoun refuses to be notified of the dismissal requests made against her by several banks.”
“She continues to assert control over the banking file, while she is also subject to lawsuits for serious misconduct,” said Chamoun. “However, as soon as such resources are filed with the clerk’s office of the plenary assembly of the Court of Cassation, the judge concerned will no longer have the power to examine the litigious files,” he said.
Mikati spokesperson Fares Gemayel told L’Orient-Le Jour that the caretaker PM “does not intervene directly” in the arm wrestling between Aoun and the banks.
Mikati “urged the banks to calm things down, given the danger the country is facing,” said Gemayel, stressing that “the prime minister is concerned about preserving stability.”
According to Gemayel, Mikati met recently with the HJC president Souheil Abboud and caretaker Justice Minister Henri Khoury, asking them to “find solutions at the legal and judicial levels.”
Lawyer Hassan Bazzi said Khoury could play a role in a decision to freeze the prosecutor’s duties.
The Judicial Inspection Board, “to which Ghada Aoun has been referred, may refer her case to the Disciplinary Board, which may ask the justice minister to suspend her duties until it decides on the offenses attributed to her,” Bazzi told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers have called for Judge Aoun’s departure. Former judge and MP Georges Okais, (LF/Zahle), tweeted: “Ghada Aoun and Riad Salameh must cease their activity immediately, to preserve the little confidence in the currency and justice.”
Aoun was quick to respond on Twitter. She wrote: “The latest heresy now is to equate between the judge who prosecutes and the one this judge is prosecuting.”
“I have to therefore leave the Justice Place because I am suing Riad Salameh and some banks!” she added.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.