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US sanctions Lebanon’s Gebran Bassil for Hezbollah ties, corruption

AFP/Washington, United States
Filed on November 6, 2020

(Reuters)

Politician Bassil is the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

The US Treasury announced sanctions against Lebanon's former energy and foreign affairs minister Gebran Bassil Friday, accusing him of corruption involving billions of dollars that has left the economy in a shambles.

The sanctions are the first against a high-ranking Christian ally of Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite movement long targeted by US sanctions and blacklisted as a "terrorist" organisation.

Bassil's designation was widely seen in Lebanon as part of a stepped up US campaign against Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and holds seats in Lebanon's parliament and in government.

"The systemic corruption in Lebanon's political system exemplified by Bassil has helped to erode the foundation of an effective government that serves the Lebanese people," said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement.

"This designation further demonstrates that the United States supports the Lebanese people in their continued calls for reform and accountability."

Bassil, the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and head of the  Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a party founded by Aoun, is dubbed by many the "shadow president".

He was a key target of a nation-wide protest movement that started in October 2019 demanding the removal of politicians deemed inept and corrupt.

Since then, Lebanon has plunged into its worst economic crisis since the 1975 to 1990 civil war, with citizens unable to access savings held in a tanking banking sector.

Activists believe he is behind many shady state dealings, especially during his time at the head of the energy ministry between 2009 and 2014.

Bassil, however, has repeatedly denied the accusations against him, insisting that his party is at the forefront of efforts to root out corruption from Lebanon.

- 'Front companies' -

On Friday, Bassil took to Twitter following the US decision, saying "sanctions didn't scare me and promises didn't tempt me".

"I will not turn against any Lebanese national... and I'm not saving myself to destroy Lebanon," he added.

"I have grown accustomed to injustice."

In a statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the designation builds on sanctions already imposed in September on former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil and former transport minister Youssef Fenianos for alleged corruption and support of Hezbollah.

"Bassil has also undermined good governance and contributed to the prevailing system of corruption and political patronage that plagues Lebanon, which has aided and abetted" Hezbollah's destabilising activities, Pompeo said.

"Lebanese political leaders should be aware that the time has long passed for them to put aside their own narrow self-interests."

The US sanctions announcement cited Lebanon's ongoing electricity and garbage management crises as stemming from deep corruption in government and said Bassil was "at the forefront" of graft in the country.

"In 2017, Bassil strengthened his political base by appointing friends to positions and purchasing other forms of influence within Lebanese political circles," the Treasury said.

"In 2014, while Minister of Energy, Bassil was involved in approving several projects that would have steered Lebanese government funds to individuals close to him through a group of front companies."

- 'Nothing to do' with US poll -

"Bassil has repeatedly used his influence to stall government formation efforts, most recently in the current process, which has further delayed any chance of Lebanon pursuing meaningful economic reform," a senior government official said.

"With today's action, we encourage Lebanon to form a government that excludes politicians known to have engaged in corruption and to pursue meaningful economic reform."

The official insisted that the action Friday had "nothing to do" with the US election or ongoing attempts to form a government in Lebanon.

Friday's sanctions announcement seeks to freeze any or all assets held by Bassil under US jurisdiction and prevent him from accessing the global financial system.

It came as the United States, as well as former colonial power France, press for a new government in Lebanon to push urgent reforms.

But while France regards Hezbollah pragmatically, recognising its constituency among Shiites in Lebanon, Washington has stepped up its campaign against the movement, which is violently opposed to Israel.





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