Lebanon passes ‘historic’ anti-corruption law amid public outcry for transparency

For the first time, ministers and MPs could be tried for illicit enrichment

epa08708372 A view of the damaged grain silos in the destroyed port area in Beirut, Lebanon, 30 September 2020. At least 190 people were killed, and more than six thousand injured in the Beirut blast that devastated the port area on 04 August and believed to have been caused by an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse. The explosion damaged some 50 thousand housing units, and left 300 thousand people homeless. Preparations for the restoration of partially damaged buildings began in the areas of Karantina, Gemmayze, and Mar Mikhael facing the port of Beirut.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH

Last October, as Lebanon was gripped by the collective euphoria of massive anti-government protests, a Lebanese judge tried to press charges against a former prime minister for illicit enrichment.

Judge Ghada Aoun’s move captured media attention because it was a first. Despite being passed into law in 1953, Lebanon’s illicit enrichment legislation has never been applied, experts say.

But the small Mediterranean country’s judicial system is not independent from politics, and local media cast doubt on Judge Aoun’s intentions. Whatever her motivations, her attempt to prosecute former prime minister Najib Mikati went nowhere. Flawed Lebanese legislation hinders prosecuting high-profile politicians.

This is about to change, experts say. On Wednesday, the Lebanese Parliament voted through significant amendments to the existing law on illicit enrichment, making it easier for prosecutors to press charges against top level officials and politicians, including sitting ministers and MPs.

The United Nations Convention Against Corruption defines illicit enrichment as the significant increase in the assets of a public official that he or she cannot reasonably explain in relation to their income.

The law also allows a yet-to-be formed anti-corruption agency to periodically audit politicians’ assets and declarations of interest. The bill will now be transferred to President Michel Aoun, who is expected to sign it because his political party, the Free Patriotic Movement, has presented the law as a political win in fighting corruption.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri heads a general legislative session at UNESCO Palace in Beirut, Lebanon September 30, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

It will be a significant development in a country that is struggling with its worst-ever economic crisis caused in large part by nepotism and mismanagement.

Lebanon’s economic collapse has heightened public interest in accountability, with local social media users obsessing over what were previously considered to be petty details.

This trend continued to increase after a deadly blast at Beirut port tore through the capital on August 4, killing nearly 200 people. Last month, President Michel Aoun was forced to explain that he had distributed a Sri Lankan gift of over one tonne of tea to the Presidential guard, causing a public outcry.

“Politicians have turned the constitutional framework of Lebanon from a Parliamentary democracy into a systemically corrupt sectarian-based oligarchy,” said former MP Ghassan Mokheiber, who led the parliamentary team that worked on the new illicit enrichment bill.

“I believe this law is a benchmark because it is a tool to fight big corruption and not just petty corruption,” he told The National.

“In Lebanon, we can see with the naked eye that corruption kills. Beirut's port blew up as a result of gross corruption and mismanagement.”

epa07941572 Protesters carry placards, wave Lebanese flags and shout anti-government slogans during a protest in front the Government palace in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, 22 October 2019. Protesters announced they will continue demonstrations and the closure of roads until the resignation of the government and parliament and hold new parliamentary elections one day after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a series of economic measures adopted by the government and approved the 2020 budget without any new taxes.  EPA/Nabil Mounzer

The Lebanese President is excluded from this law because he can only be tried in front of a special court, even for common law crimes, said Mr Mokheiber. This procedure, which is similar to impeachment in the US, has never been activated in Lebanon.

MP Ibrahim Kanaan, head of the finance and budget parliament committee, said the new law was “historic on the legislative level”.

“Today, with this law, after more than 50 years, we are getting the right legislation to open the way for anyone [to be prosecuted] and for the ordinary judiciary to make public officials accountable,” Mr Kanaan, who is a member of the FPM, said on Wednesday.

“Of course, we have to continue … following this path seriously. Other laws are required, like banking secrecy and the recovery of stolen assets. It’s a whole process,” he added.

Parliament has also been reviewing a law that increases the independence of the judiciary for the past year.

The new illicit enrichment bill corrects flaws of the previous 1999 law, which was a merger of a 1953 law on illicit enrichment and a 1954 law on asset declaration.

Public officials could previously keep their assets declaration secret unless a panel of judges had gathered enough evidence that a crime had been committed.

“That beat the purpose, because without a system to regularly check these declarations, you are unlikely to find evidence to begin with,” said Arkan El Seblani, UNDP chief technical adviser on anti-corruption in Arab states.

“In Lebanon, there is a common misconception that there are enough laws and that we just need to move ahead with implementation, but existing laws are filled with obstacles and loopholes - action is needed on both fronts” he added.

With the past illicit enrichment law, prosecutors had to prove that public officials had made financial gains through offences such as embezzlement or bribery. Now, they must simply prove a discrepancy in wealth. The suspect then has to show that it has not been derived from an illegitimate source.

Initiating a proceeding for illicit enrichment used to be an expensive and uncertain process. Individuals had to deposit a guarantee of 25 million Lebanese Pounds, or a little over $16,000 at the official, now defunct, exchange rate, and could be counter-sued by the accused for damages in hundreds of millions of Lebanese pounds.

“This signals that the law was so inappropriately drafted and so ineffective that it made its use by judges or the general public almost impossible,” said Mr Mokheiber. “Our laws are meant to be incomplete so that oligarchs can continue doing what they want in agreement among themselves.”