A number of politicians on Thursday blasted a decision by Financial Prosecutor Ali Ibrahim to freeze the assets of 20 Lebanese banks, as Speaker Nabih Berri denied influencing the prosecutor’s ruling.
“Some suspicious TV networks aired news claiming that the parliament speaker was behind the decision taken by Financial Prosecutor Ali Ibrahim towards the banks. The press office of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri stresses that Mr. Speaker has not and will never interfere in the work of the judiciary,” the office said in a statement, noting that the reports are “totally baseless.”
Al-Mustaqbal Movement leader ex-PM Saad Hariri meanwhile slammed Ibrahim’s ruling as “an uncalculated, populist political message that does not preserve the rights of small and big depositors nor the confidence of friends and brothers in Lebanon.”
“Putting the hand on banks in the declared manner is a coup against the economic system and a step that takes Lebanon back to the era of totalitarian regimes,” Hariri warned.
Progressive Socialist Party leader ex-MP Walid Jumblat had earlier described Ibrahim’s move as “the beginning of a plan to nationalize banks and other institutions in a country characterized by conflicting authorities.”
“It seems that they want to bury Greater Lebanon on its centenary,” Jumblat added in a tweet.
MP Michel Mouawad of the Strong Lebanon bloc for his part said Ibrahim’s “very dangerous” decision “plunges Lebanon into the unknown, follows the Venezuela-like model, changes Lebanon’s face, impoverishes the Lebanese and eliminates any chance to regain confidence and draw foreign investments.”
“What’s more dangerous is that this decision aims to present a scapegoat in order to protect the political class, instead of beginning the implementation of the serious financial, economic and administrative reforms,” Mouawad added, alleging that the decision was taken “in the offices of political leaders” and not by the judiciary.
TV networks meanwhile said that State Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat was expected to suspend Ibrahim’s decision later on Thursday, following talks between President Michel Aoun and Banks Association chief Salim Sfeir.
Ibrahim had earlier on Thursday ordered an asset freeze for 20 banks and their board directors, in the latest move targeting the crisis-hit country’s under-fire banks.
Lebanon has been gripped since October 17 by mass protests against the political class and banking sector, even as it faces its worst economic crisis in decades.
Banks have since September imposed increasingly tight limits on dollar withdrawals and transfers abroad to tackle a severe liquidity crisis, sparking frustration among ordinary depositors.
Ibrahim’s move comes after the prosecutor separately called in 15 banks on Monday over more than 2 billion dollars in capital flight despite the restrictions in the two months after the start of the protests.
Lebanon is currently facing its worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.
The value of the Lebanese pound has plummeted on the black market, prices have risen, and many businesses have been forced to slash salaries, dismiss staff or close.
Lebanon is one of the most indebted countries in the world, with a public debt equivalent to 150 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).
The country is now under pressure to pay a $1.2 billion Eurobond maturing on March 9, with a decision expected on Saturday on whether or not to default.