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Caretaker Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar said Lebanon needs a “solution to reduce tensions” amid aggressive policing of Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon and a rise in deportations and anti-refugee rhetoric. “There is a risk of a big explosion between the Lebanese and the displaced Syrians in Lebanon,” Hajjar said in an interview Sunday evening with local channel LBCI. Last month, caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi banned a protest by Syrian refugees against the increase in deportations after the announcement of a counterprotest by a group calling itself “The National Campaign to Free Lebanon from Syrian Demographic Occupation.” On April 26, the government issued regulations targeting Syrian refugees, including tougher enforcement of labor restrictions and measures to reduce the number of displaced persons. Hajjar explained the measures, including additional data collection and record requests to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), as a need to address “the unregulated dispersion of Syrian displaced persons,” which he estimated at “more than 1,600,000.” Hundreds of people have been arrested since the start of April and dozens have been deported amid increased crackdowns on Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon. Rights groups have warned of the dangers associated with refugees’ return to Syria, including mandatory military conscription, arrest, forced disappearance and destroyed or extorted homes. On Friday, a Syrian father facing threats of deportation to Syria, where he is wanted for mandatory military service, died by apparent suicide.
A delegation of European judges investigating alleged corruption by Banque du Liban (BDL) governor Riad Salameh plans to start hearings today with officials from international and local firms involved in central bank audits. The hearings come after last week’s questioning of Salameh’s former assistant Marianne Hoayek. The French, German and Luxembourgian investigators plan to question officials from the Lebanon offices of Deloitte, Ernst and Young and a local firm along with BDL senior director Raja Abou Asli before concluding their trip this Friday. Last Friday, the foreign magistrates questioned Hoayek, who is suspected of having received up to 5 million euros of BDL funds via bank accounts in Switzerland and Luxembourg. Hoayek, Salameh and his brother Raja face criminal charges in a local investigation into the alleged embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars in commissions from the sale of BDL assets. Raja Salameh missed his hearing with the European judges last week, citing illness and a week of prescribed rest. The allegedly stolen funds are thought to have been placed in real estate assets and bank deposits in Europe. A French court postponed a hearing to discuss the return of tens of millions of euros of seized assets linked to Salameh until May 23. A week before that, however, Salameh is called to attend a hearing in Paris, during which the French justice plans to charge him with fraud and money laundering. Lebanese authorities lifted a travel ban against Salameh after the hearing was announced. Salameh has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
A cabinet decree published Thursday in the Official Gazette replaced the official exchange rate for value-added tax (VAT) calculations with three new exchange rates converging to the parallel market rate. Products sold to end-users are now subject to VAT according to the parallel market exchange rate, while their sale between traders incurs a VAT at the BDL’s Sayrafa rate and their importers owe the same tax at a rate jointly set by the central bank and Finance Ministry heads. The exchange rate for calculating VAT in practice has increased between four to six times from the official exchange rate, which was raised tenfold to LL15,000 at the start of February. Experts predict the new VAT exchange rates will result in further inflation — which in March saw prices rising by a third of what they were the previous month, an unsurprising uptick amid a third year of triple-digit yearly inflation following steep lira depreciation. In March, the Finance Ministry announced that, among others, hotels, restaurants and jewelers would have to pay a portion of their VAT in cash, which was interpreted as an attempt to increase government lira liquidity to help the central bank stabilize the parallel market exchange rate and finance public sector salaries — which were tripled again last month.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on Friday concluded a three-day official visit to Lebanon, during which he vowed his country’s provision of “initiatives to improve the situation in Lebanon” and announced support for “any agreement” to end the six-month presidential vacuum. Amir-Abdollahian and his Lebanese counterpart discussed cooperation between the two countries in “economy, trade and tourism” and mentioned the possibility of supporting Lebanon’s ailing electricity sector. On an earlier visit in January, the Iranian foreign minister announced his country’s willingness to offer free fuel and build power plants in Lebanon, which was then suffering shortages causing the shutdown of power plants. On Friday, he reiterated that fear of US sanctions are inhibiting this cooperation. Amir-Abdollahian also commented on the presidential election impasse. “Iran will accept any Lebanese personality who will accede to the presidency by consensus,” Amir-Abdollahian said. The Lebanese Forces and their allies have repeatedly said they would refuse a president from the pro-Iranian axis in Lebanon after 11 attempts by Parliament saw their candidate, Zgharta MP Michel Moawad, face a majority of blank votes — cast partly by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, who support Marada Movement head Sleiman Frangieh. A 12th election session has yet to be scheduled. Meanwhile, the US State Department on Monday said it “calls on Lebanon’s political leadership to move expeditiously to elect a president to unite the country and swiftly enact the reforms needed to rescue its economy from crisis.”
In case you missed it, here’s our must-read story from over the weekend: “French teen athlete ascends Lebanon’s most challenging rock climb”
Compiled by Abbas Mahfouz