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)

30 March 2006

* Rana Qoleilat claims innocence in TV interview

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."
 

(rantburg)

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."

15 March 2006

Rana Koleilat

SAO PAOLO, Brazil - Rana Koleilat, accused of playing a key role in a fraud so big it collapsed a bank, kept living the high life even behind bars in her native Lebanon, reportedly repainting her cell and ordering takeout food before skipping bail and fleeing the country.

Now she’s in prison again, this time on the other side of the world in Brazil, charged with offering police a US$200,000 (Ð168,000) bribe to let her go free.

Brazilian authorities are trying to determine what to do with the famous fugitive, who is also wanted for questioning in U.N. probe of the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

She considers herself a political prisoner, her attorney said, adding that police confused an explanation of her investment plan in Brazil with a bribe offer.

Lebanon has no extradition treaty with Brazil, and Lebanese Prosecutor General Saeed Mirza was trying to find a legal basis to demand her extradition, the country’s official news agency reported.

Lebanese judicial officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday that authorities will try to focus on the bank-fraud charges to seek extradition.

Koleilat, 39, was arrested on Sunday and spent two days at a police station before she was transferred on Tuesday to a Sao Paulo prison.

The bribe she allegedly offered to Brazilian police appears to be at the low end of the dollar figures associated with her past scandals.

During 12 years at the private Al-Madina bank, Koleilat rose from clerk to executive. It was an era in which Syria dominated Lebanon and when paying off Syrian intelligence agents and providing gifts to powerful politicians was common.

Hariri had been trying to reduce Syria’s influence when he was killed, along with 20 other people, in a February 2005 truck bombing.

Koleilat was at the center of the scandal that engulfed Al-Madina when the Central Bank announced in July 2003 that it had detected a cash deficit at the bank of more than US$300 million (Ð250 million), along with other irregularities.

Lebanese consular officials told Brazilian authorities that the amount missing could total as much as US$1.2 billion (Ð1.0 billion), Brazilian police inspector Nicanor Nogueira Branco said.

Koleilat’s attorney, Victor Mauad, said Tuesday that police were merely confused by her attempts to explain, in fractured Portuguese, her plans to invest as much as US$200,000 (Ð168,000) in Brazil.

She was “looking into the possibility of investing in the hotel industry and it was in the context of this explanation that she mentioned numbers that the police obviously misconstrued as an attempt to bribe them,” Mauad said.

Branco scoffed: While he’d earlier described Koleilat’s Portuguese as “very bad,” he said Tuesday she’d made herself clear enough to offer a bribe.

In addition to financial charges, Koleilat also is sought for questioning by the U.N.’s Independent International Investigation Commission, which is probing the truck bombing that killed Hariri and 20 other people in downtown Beirut last year.

Koleilat was freed in Lebanon on bail less than two months before Hariri was killed, allegedly under pressure from Syria’s intelligence chief in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Rustum Ghazale.

She was whisked out of the country before the Syrian army withdrew in April and reportedly spent time in Egypt before going to Brazil.

Brazilian authorities were told investigators want to know whether funds diverted from her bank helped finance the killing of Hariri. U.N. officials had no immediate comment.

Mauad said he knew nothing about those allegations and was only representing Koleilat on the bribery charge.

But, he added, “She told me she is a victim of political persecution and that her biggest fear is that she will be killed as soon as she returns to Lebanon. She did not tell me who is persecuting her nor why.”

When arrested, she was carrying a British passport identifying her as Rana Klailat _ which could translate in Arabic to a spelling identical to Koleilat. Police said she had visited Brazil three times over the last year or so.

The British Embassy in Beirut approved a passport for a person with that name in 2002, said David Paginton, vice consul of Britain’s Sao Paulo consulate, though he said he could not yet confirm Koleilat’s is valid.

Sao Paulo, a city of 18 million residents, is home to a large community of Lebanese emigrant families. Hariri’s son, Saad Rafik Hariri, last year asked Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for help investigating suspected Syrian involvement in his father’s death.(KTimes)

Lebanon Time-Line

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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.