Naim says Aoun ‘forced to open private accounts’
Maha Al-Azar
Daily Star staff  (8/1/01)
A former Central Bank governor said Sunday that Michel Aoun’s government collected taxes and kept them in private accounts but added that they needed to in order to function. In an interview with The Daily Star on Sunday, former Central Bank Governor Edmond Naim, who was appointed by former President Amin Gemayel in the mid-1980s and served until 1991, acknowledged that Aoun kept his government’s funds in private accounts at the Baabda Serail. However, Naim defended the former army commander, saying Aoun was compelled to set up the accounts because former Prime Minister Salim Hoss’ government pressured the Central Bank into halting payments to Aoun’s government. Aoun is considering returning to Lebanon after a decade in exile in France. Sources close to the judiciary have said Aoun runs the risk of being charged with embezzlement if he returns.
Sources close to the Finance Ministry told Radio Orient Sunday that “preliminary results” of a Finance Ministry investigation found Aoun collected about $27 million in taxes during his 1988-1990 government. They also said if charged, he would owe another $27 million in interest. The sources, who were not identified, said Aoun deposited the funds in “private, personal” bank accounts, which was against regulations. Aoun was appointed by outgoing President Gemayel to head an interim military government in 1988 after Parliament failed to elect a new president when Gemayel’s term expired. But Hoss refused to recognize Aoun as the new prime minister and continued to head his own Cabinet.
Aoun, who fought against the Syrian presence in Lebanon, was ousted in 1990 by the Lebanese and Syrian armies and subsequently went into exile to France in 1991. “It’s true that he was collecting taxes directly and storing the funds in cash in the Baabda Serail, but as soon as he left the country, the government seized those funds,” Naim said. Naim reported that during his term as Central Bank governor, about $30 million to $40 million in funds collected by Aoun were deposited in the Central Bank following Aoun’s exile to France. Naim said the official minutes of Aoun’s government showed the then-prime minister recorded opening bank accounts in his name and the names of Generals Edgard Maalouf and Issam Abu Jamra, who were ministers in Aoun’s interim government.
According to Naim, the minutes noted that although the accounts were in the three generals’ names, the money deposited in them belonged to the government. Former Beirut Bar Association President Shakib Qortbawi said the accounts were opened in the generals’ names as well as under names of ministry directors-general. “In the beginning, the Central Bank provided funds to both the Aoun and Hoss governments,” Qortbawi said. “But when the Central Bank was ordered to stop money transfers to Aoun’s government, Aoun started collecting taxes in his name.”
Naim said despite the arrest threats issued by “judicial sources,” Aoun could only be tried for financial fraud by the Higher Council for the Prosecution of Ministers and Presidents, as he was both acting as president and prime minister during his two-year interim government. Naim said the law pardoning Aoun in 1991 meant he could not be prosecuted on criminal charges and therefore should not be arrested if he returned to Lebanon. Energy and Water Minister Mohammed Abdel-Hamid Beydoun made the same argument during a news conference he held Saturday and criticized “anonymous sources” who commented on Aoun’s file.
“It’s not acceptable that ‘sources’ release statements,” he said. “If the Lebanese government has a viewpoint on the matter, it can do so through its prime minister, or a specific minister ... but the return of these sources weakens trust in the government and harms the reputation of Lebanon as a democratic country.” As for claims that Aoun might still possess state funds, Naim argued that the state could file a civil lawsuit against him to reclaim these funds.
Another source of income for Aoun’s government were the private donations made out personally. Naim estimated those at about $40 million and said Aoun took the money to France. “This money was donated to him personally, as a leader of a cause, and not in his capacity as prime minister,” Naim told An-Nahar in a recent interview. Qortbawi said Aoun used a large part of the private funds to run his government. “It’s obvious that this entire issue is political,” Qortbawi said. “And I expect to see this file being used for political purposes for a good while longer.”
But a political observer who requested anonymity saw the recent leaks to the press regarding Finance Ministry investigations as positive for the government. “This shows they’re trying to set the record straight,” he said. “They’ll examine their accounts and they’re bound to find that Aoun doesn’t owe the government anything. Then they’ll have to close the file.”