Wednesday, February 21

Lebanese PM sees judicial ‘shortcomings,’ denies interference

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BEIRUT — Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Saturday denied interfering in the judiciary but said there were “shortcomings” in its work, after a series of rulings against banks that have led them to declare a strike next week.

Mikati spoke after an exceptional cabinet session convened to discuss the rulings against banks, seven of which have had their assets frozen by judicial orders since March 14. Banks plan a two-day strike from Monday in response.

Mikati, who said on Friday actions taken by some judges were heightening tensions in Lebanon, said he had proposed senior members of the judiciary attend the session to discuss “the shortcomings of the judicial body.” However, the justice minister requested the meeting be limited to ministers, he said.

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In one case, a judge ruled in favor of a depositor demanding that Fransabank reopen his account and pay out his deposit – some $34,000 according to the bank – in cash.

As a result of the order, which froze its assets and sealed its vaults, Fransabank said it could not execute cash transactions.

Ahead of the cabinet session, a union representing depositors said in a Tweet the government was meeting “to prevent the Lebanese judiciary from ruling on cases of depositors against the banks and their owners.”

During the session, Labour Minister Mustafa Bayram, named to cabinet by the powerful Hezbollah, said “there is a suspicion in public opinion that the government moved to protect the banks and did not move to depositors and people’s rights,” minutes seen by Reuters showed , prompting a denial from Mikati.

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Another judge has frozen the assets of six banks as she probes transactions between them and the central bank.

More than $100 billion is trapped in a banking system that has been paralyzed since 2019, when Lebanon descended into a devastating financial crisis.

Mikati said the government was committed to judicial independence and not interfering in its work.

Lebanon’s failure to pass a capital control law has left banks to impose informal controls that have treated depositors unequally. Banks say they have been calling for such a law. (Reporting by Laila Bassam and Tom Perry in Beirut and Nayera Abdallah and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo ; Writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich, Kirsten Donovan)