29 March 2006

Rana Qoleilat claims innocence in TV interview

BEIRUT: Rana Qoleilat, the Al-Madina Bank executive wanted on suspicion of involvement in a banking scandal, said she was innocent of all allegations in her first media appearance Tuesday. The fugitive alleged from her Brazilian prison cell that her ex-husband Adnan Abu Ayyash paid Syria's former intelligence chief in Lebanon Rustom Ghazaleh to have her thrown in jail.

In an interview with Brazil's Globo Television, Qoleilat said: "Rustom Ghazaleh was extorting money from rich and influential Lebanese like me."

A transcript of the interview was published in Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal Tuesday.

"I was jailed because I didn't pay Ghazaleh. It was my ex-husband who paid him to put me in jail," she added.

Qoleilat blamed Al-Madina's collapse on Ayyash, who she claims withdrew $490 million to invest in the stock market. "That

is when all the troubles began," she said. The couple were married for 10 years from 1992.

When Ayyash was unable to return the money, Qoleilat and her family "rushed to his aid" so that he could reimburse the bank's depositors, she added.

"When the scandal broke, they started accusing me, when I didn't steal anything. I didn't need to steal because [Ayyash] gave me complete freedom over his private accounts," she said.

"He is using his influence to keep me in prison to humiliate me," she said, adding "he threw me in a pit full of rats and garbage."

Qoleilat, who is awaiting possible extradition to Lebanon, warned that if she was brought back to Lebanon, "Ayyash will use his influence to have me killed in jail"

Qoleilat was arrested on March 12 at a Sao Paolo hotel, and was charged with attempted bribery after she offered arresting officers $200,000 to let her go free. Her lawyer later claimed the police officers had misunderstood her poor Portuguese.

Brazilian authorities said UN investigators informed them of their intention to question Qoleilat to find out whether money allegedly diverted from Al-Madina was used to finance the February 14, 2005 bombing that killed former Prime Minister Hariri and 22 others.

"I am just a normal person. I'm not a terrorist, a criminal or a thief," she said, repeatedly denying any connection to the Hariri assassination.

"Rafik Hariri was the most important person I ever met in my life. He taught me everything and rebuilt Lebanon ... I could never have touched a single hair on his head," she said.

Qoleilat's interview came on the same day as a meeting of the Security Council. By the time The Daily Star went to print, the council had yet to vote on establishing the international tribunal to try those suspected in the Hariri assassination.

A UN spokesperson told The Daily Star, "it is not officially on their agenda, but it may come up during the meeting."

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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.