Lebanon’s financial prosecutor freezes assets of 20 banks

Lebanon’s financial prosecutor freezes assets of 20 banks

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s financial prosecutor froze the assets of 20 Lebanese banks, their top bosses and board members as part of a probe, state media and judicial sources said on Thursday.

Local banks are at the heart of a financial crisis crippling Lebanon as the clock runs down on its looming debt maturities, including a $1.2 billion Eurobond due on March 9.

The government will meet on Saturday to take a decision, after Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said a majority of MPs oppose paying even if that leads to default. The comments compounded doubts over whether Lebanon will meet the repayment.

Prosecutor Ali Ibrahim interrogated bank chairmen this week over transfers abroad and their recent sales of Eurobonds to foreign funds, a judicial source said.

Thursday’s move to freeze assets is part of an ongoing investigation, another judicial source said.

The source said the decision involved some of Lebanon’s biggest banks, including Blom Bank (BY:), Bank Audi (BY:), Byblos Bank (BY:), Bank of Beirut (BY:) and SGBL ( Societe Generale (PA:) De Banque Au Liban SAL).

The prosecutor gave notice to the central bank and the banking association, state news agency NNA said without giving details of the assets.

The Association of Banks in Lebanon, which represents the nation’s lenders, could not be reached for immediate comment.

Economic and financial strains came to a head last year as capital inflows slowed and protests erupted against a political elite that has dominated Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war and steered it into crisis.

The crisis is rooted in decades of waste and corruption which landed the country with one of the world’s biggest public debt burdens.

Domestic banks, which for years funneled deposits to the state, hold the bulk of the sovereign debt and have been in discord with political powers over the repayment due next week.

Berri, one of the country’s most influential leaders, blamed the banks on Wednesday for diluting the local holding by selling the Eurobonds to foreign investors. Critics say this has weakened Lebanon’s position in talks with foreign bondholders.

Some politicians have turned their criticism to the banking sector as public anger also boiled over at the banks, which have severely curbed people’s access to their savings and blocked transfers abroad.

The head of the banking association, Salim Sfeir, has said the restrictions aim to keep Lebanon’s wealth in the country.

Sfeir said on Wednesday the sector was being targeted with rumors and banks had suffered losses to secure liquidity.

Earlier this year, the central bank asked banks to review transfers of funds abroad by politicians and government employees between October and December.

The government separately approved a draft law on Thursday aimed at lifting banking secrecy. The information minister said the law, which will go to parliament, would apply to ministers, MPs and a range of public officials.

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