Wide shot of Lebanese parliament

Finance

Lebanon's political class 'ripped off' the country's potential, 'Pandora' investigator says

The "Pandora Papers" exposed offshore accounts of the rich and powerful around the globe, including Lebanon's elite political class. Alia Ibrahim, founder of Daraj Media, a team that helped bring the investigation to light, joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss Lebanon's economic situation.

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Parliament meets to confirm Lebanon's new government at a Beirut theater known as the UNESCO palace so that parliament members could observe social distancing measures imposed over the coronavirus pandemic, Lebanon, Sept. 20, 2021.

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Bilal Hussein/AP/File photo

A global investigation has revealed how the rich and powerful have been hiding their investments in mansions, exclusive beachfront properties, yachts and other assets for the past quarter-century. Collectively these assets are worth trillions of dollars.

Related: Lebanon’s financial crisis is so bad that soldiers can't feed their families

Lebanon is one of the nearly 100 countries scrutinized in the "Pandora Papers" exposé. The trove of documents pinpoints the hidden offshore tax havens of some of Lebanon's most powerful figures — including the new billionaire prime minister and the governor of its central bank. 

The revelations have not been going over well within Lebanon, where the country's economic situation continues to plummet. 

Related: ‘Sometimes I feel like I betrayed my country’: Lebanon's doctors are leaving in droves

To discuss the situation on the ground there, Alia Ibrahim joined The World's host Marco Werman. She's the founder of Daraj Media, an independent Lebanese digital media group that was one of the many local partners with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that brought the Pandora Papers to light.

Marco Werman: Alia, you're in Beirut right now. Most Lebanese knew their leaders were not squeaky clean. We now see that of all the countries in the world. Lebanon tops the list with the number of offshore companies. What are some of the other big revelations from the Pandora Papers?
Alia Ibrahim: We're looking, for example, at the head of the central bank, who since the '90s has been taking his own money outside, while telling the Lebanese depositors and Arab depositors and others that the currency is very safe and that they can keep their money inside the banks. His own money is well-kept in safe havens, in real estate, etc., while the money of the depositors and the average citizen is locked in the bank and they can have no access to it whatsoever.

 

So, can you give us a few examples, Alia, of the kinds of investments and tax shelters of, say, the governor of the central Bank of Lebanon? What has he established for himself offshore?
We've been investigating the central bank governor for over a year, and the reason we did that was because he has been at the helm of the central bank for 30 years. What "Pandora" gave us, is two very specific companies. One of them is actually headed by him as a director, which is a violation of the credit and money law in Lebanon. This, by itself, should be enough to isolate him and to investigate him. Another company that is owned by his son, it was [related] to a huge real estate development project that was taking place in Lebanon. Yes, it's true that not every offshore company is illegal. And yes, it's true that it's not necessarily hiding a criminal act. But when you do such investigative work and it gives us access to information that is otherwise not available, and it could shed the light on the behavior of people who are in high political positions that can have an impact on the daily life of every single citizen in this country, this is really very empowering from a journalistic point of view. We've been seeing since the "Panama Papers," since the "Paradise Papers" and now with Pandora, unless there is strict diligence when it comes to politically exposed people, when it comes to people in the close circle of politicians and of power, the abuse of offshore companies is going to go on.
So, a few years ago, if we look at the context here, Lebanon's currency collapsed, unable to pay its debts, and that is currently the status quo. Average Lebanese can't even draw their own savings out of their bank accounts. What are Lebanese citizens saying about the details in the leaked documents?
It's another unbelievable chapter of the very, very boring soap opera that has been going on over and over in this crisis. Over $6 billion have been taken out of the country, mostly belonging to politicians and their business affiliates. If you drive around Beirut right now, it's really, really heartbreaking. There is no electricity. There's no gas. It's a country that has so much potential that has completely been ripped off by its political class. And now, we're learning that this political class has managed to take its own personal wealth outside of the country. I mean, if this is not really infuriating, then I don't know what [is].

 

So Alia, activists in Lebanon are calling for action and accountability. Real accountability, though, would demand an independent judiciary to hold the powerful to account. What would it take for that to happen?
This is a very good question, because activism has happened. The Lebanese have taken the streets by millions and then people could not do it anymore because they really had to go back to work. In a country — I forgot to mention, the Aug. 4 explosion literally destroyed almost half of our capital. Until now, neither in the explosion nor in the collapse, not one person has been held accountable. Without accountability, we're not going anywhere. The Lebanese judiciary is full of excellent judges. It just happens that those who are in power and the key positions are not the most decent ones.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.

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