Last week, Beirut investigating judge Farid Agib delivered a decision rejecting the objections raised by former telecom ministers Jamal Jarrah and Mohammad Choucair. The objections were submitted as part of a lawsuit filed against them by Wassim Mansour, a shareholder in Touch, a mobile phone operator whose premises, located near Beirut’s city center (Bachoura), were purchased by the state in August 2019.
According to the ruling, the ordinary courts possess the jurisdiction to determine the liability of Jarrah and Choucair in the disputed acquisition. It is worth noting that Touch is managed by a private company on behalf of the state.
Agib’s decision directly contradicted the arguments put forth by Jarrah and Choucair, who contended that only the Supreme Council, responsible for judging ministers, could prosecute them in the event of a breach of their official duties.
The judge firmly established that the accusations against the ministers, specifically for ‘corruption and misappropriation of public funds,’ are classified as ‘criminal acts resulting from the abuse of their ministerial positions’ rather than mere breaches of their duties.
Consequently, Agib’s ruling stated that “these acts fall within the jurisdiction of the regular criminal courts,” according to the decision text which was made available to L’Orient-Le Jour.
Reducing ministerial immunity
When contacted by L’Orient-Le Jour, Nizar Saghiyeh, the director of Legal Agenda and Mansour’s legal representative, expressed his satisfaction with Judge Agib’s ruling. He emphasized that the decision narrows down the extent of immunity that ministers often use as a shield. Saghiyeh considered this a significant development, which he described as “a crucial initial step toward holding the responsible ministers accountable.”
To underscore his point, Saghiyeh drew a parallel with the ongoing case of the devastating 2020 Beirut port explosion, in which the implicated ministers have yet to be questioned. Saghiyeh believes the argument of ministerial immunity poses a substantial obstacle for the investigating magistrate at the Court of Justice, Tarek Bitar, who is overseeing the case investigation.
Saghiyeh highlighted that Jarrah and Choucair have filed two appeals in an attempt to overturn Judge Agib’s decision. These appeals have now been referred to the Beirut Indictment Chamber and the final verdict of this higher-level court will determine whether the two ministers will face prosecution in the regular courts rather than the Supreme Council.
The Supreme Council is often regarded as a “virtual” entity since it has never convened. It consists of 15 members, including eight judges and seven MPs, and requires the approval of two-thirds of MPs to initiate proceedings. Furthermore, any verdict by the council necessitates a majority of 10 votes.
The Bachoura property was purchased for the remarkable amount of $75 million. The acquisition, which was announced by Choucair, telecom minister at the time, sparked intense reactions from civil society and certain political circles. They criticized it as a “dubious deal.”
Prior to its sale, the property had been leased, after entering into a contract for the lease of a building owned by Jean Kassabian in Chiyah, Beirut. Touch, the company involved, paid an annual rent of $10.5 million for the building.
In May, the Audit Court released a report investigating the misuse of public funds related to the matter. The report raised suspicions of accountability not only against Jarrah and Choucair, but also against other former telecom ministers who held the position since 2011. These ministers include Nicolas Sehnaoui, Boutros Harb, Talal Hawat, and Johnny Corm.
The court directed each of the mentioned ministers to present their defense against the allegations within a 60-day period, which is nearing its end. Once the deadline expires, the court will be able to deliver its final decision, which the ministers can challenge before the State Council.
Saghiyeh expressed his approval of the actions taken by the Audit Court. He noted that it is the first time in the court’s history that multiple ministers have been accused in a single decision. Saghiyeh viewed this development as a positive step toward increasing accountability among those in positions of authority.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.