31 March 2006

A fugitive in Brazil, a mystery in Lebanon

This was not the way Rana Qoleilat thought things would end. In mid-March, police arrested the 39-year-old Lebanese bank executive at her hotel room in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Rather than going gracefully to jail, Qoleilat offered local officers a $200,000 bribe to release her; three days later, she attempted suicide by cutting her wrists with a tiny blade from an eyeliner sharpener.

Qoleilat once lived the high life back in Lebanon. According to the US News and World Report, she jetted around in her own private plane, had servants and a personal hairdresser and lived in a three-story penthouse - all while claiming to make only $1,000 a month. She even bought a $10 million villa from the son-in-law of Lebanese president Emile Lahoud.

But those care-free days came to an end three years ago when al-Madina Bank, the institution for which Qoleilat worked, came up $1.2 billion short. The resulting scandal landed her in jail for embezzlement, but she only spent a few months there, making bail and then fleeing the country just two months before the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, a key opponent of the Syrians.

To say that the fugitive banker is politically connected is an understatement. Qoleilat moved money for Syrian intelligence officials and Hizbullah, and during the Syrian occupation, the Lebanese government squelched reporting on the al-Madina case. Even now, there's reluctance to open that Pandora's Box, though some of the stolen funds may have financed the Hariri murder.

The bank scandal
Before the 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanon was the financial capital of the Middle East, but warring sectarian militias (as well as Syrian, Palestinian and Israeli forces) wrecked the banking industry, along with much of the economy. Now, after years of reconstruction, the country's banking sector is among the largest in the world, with more than 70 private banks holding deposits in excess of $39 billion.

The al-Madina Bank opened in 1982, in the midst of the war, and was bought two years later by a pair of wealthy Druse brothers from the town of Baakline. In the early 1990s, Rana Qoleilat came to work as a clerk for Adnan and Ibrahim Abu Ayash, and after 12 years at the bank, she made executive. Billions of dollars in Russian mafia, Iraqi regime and Saudi charity money washed through the trio's hands.

Who would notice if a few million here or there went missing? However, a run on the bank in early 2003 revealed that $1.2 billion was gone. The Central Bank of Lebanon first froze the accounts of Qoleilat and the Abu Ayash brothers, then mysteriously backed away. The government even intimidated journalists covering the story.

"Al-Madina was one of the rackets that flourished in Lebanon helping Syrian intelligence officers and officials and their Lebanese allies enrich themselves," explains a Beirut-based reporter.

John Walzer agrees.

"When you see the size of the embezzlement, the people [allegedly] involved, and then the inaction [on the part of the government], you have to surmise that they don't want anyone want to look into it," says the former FBI agent and lead investigator for Fortress Global Investigations, who examined the case.

In July 2004, the Central Bank of Lebanon appointed an administrator to run al-Madina, but the authorities are still not releasing bank details to the public. Still, Fortress Global Investigations knows of money transfers to General Rustom Ghazali, who was the Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon, to then-Syrian defense minister Mustapha Tlass and to Hizbullah.-(jpost)

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.