BEIRUT: Widespread corruption at the Customs Department is costing the Treasury more than $400 million in lost revenues each year and has further tarnished Lebanon’s image among investors and Western countries, experts, economists and merchants said Tuesday.
“The corruption at Customs is quite serious and this problem has grown over the past two years due to the absence of the state,” the general manager of a maritime company told The Daily Star on condition of anonymity.
“There are a lot of parties involved in these practices and it is not confined to one political party or religious sect. The one who is covering up these practices is a high-ranking Christian Customs official at the port. But this does not mean that Christian parties are involved. I estimate the cost of this corruption at the port and airport at around $400 million or a little bit more,” the source said.
Customs corruption made headlines again last week when a team from the Al-Jadeed TV station was assaulted by security guards near the department’s head office in Downtown Beirut while they were conducting an investigative report on such practices.
The incident generated extensive media coverage, and judicial authorities have charged one officer involved in the confrontation between the Al-Jadeed staff and Customs staff.
“I condemn the attack on the TV crew but I also resent the way one of the reporters provoked the acting director of the Customs Department. The reporter could have done his job in a more tactful manner,” a representative of one of the shipping firms said.
Experts familiar with developments at the airport and Beirut port stress that many importers and clearance offices are engaged in such practices.
Some observers pointed to a recent sit-in and strike held by several shipping and clearance offices in solidarity with the acting director of the Customs Department as an indication of their collusion in corruption.
“They [clearance offices and importers] are equally to blame because they bribe Customs officials in order to save money on every container that is unloaded at the port. Instead of paying $10,000 or $20,000 in customs fees, the importer puts $2,000 or $3,000 in the pocket of a Customs official to change the manifest of the shipment,” the maritime official explained.
He added that some of the clerks at the Customs Department were living in a manner far more lavish than their salaries would allow.
“But corruption does not only exist at the Customs Department. Look at some of the judges. Some of them have two or three houses and luxury cars although their salaries do not exceed $4,000 a month,” he added.
Caretaker Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi, whose ministry is in charge of the Customs Department, argued last week that corruption was present at every ministry and was not only confined to Customs.
Safadi ordered the installment of complaint boxes at every Customs office two weeks ago, but some experts dismissed the gesture as ineffective and a waste of time.
Former Finance Minister Jihad Azour believes these practices at the airport and port can be addressed if the state decides to combat corruption at all levels.
“The situation deteriorated last year. The state is getting weaker and is unable to enforce any decision. As a result of this laxity, some of the employees continue this practice with complete impunity,” he said.
In his opinion, corruption at the airport and port could be handled by introducing advanced broadband technology to process all Customs payments without any hassle.
“There should also be accountability. Government employees cannot claim anymore that their wages are lower than the private sector. On the contrary, government employees in general are now better off than most of the staff working in private companies. Plus, the state employees have better end-of-service benefits and social coverage,” Azour stressed.
He also proposed lifting the banking secrecy on some government staff who may be involved in graft.
“We need to check the assets of the civil servants. This is one way to combat or reduce corruption in government,” Azour said.
He also dismissed claims that only one party was behind the corruption.
“When it comes to corruption, we have national unity among various sects. The 50/50 formula [half Christians and half Muslims in key government posts] is also applied in corruption,” Azour said.
Some traders declined to speak to The Daily Star about the corruption cases at the port. “Please spare me this subject. You can discuss anything with me expect this subject,” one prominent merchant said.
However, Roy Badaro, who recently abandoned his retail clothing business, claimed that only one party was behind all the Customs corruption, pointing a finger at Hezbollah.
“There could be some Christian figures who are involved in corruption at Customs but they are nothing more than fronts to cover the practices of this party. I abandoned my business because I refuse to pay bribes to Customs officials,” Badaro said.
Hasan Qoreitem, the president of Beirut Port, said the facility was not concerned or involved in the corruption saga at Customs.
“You can say I am an ‘attal’ [porter] because we unload upload cargoes from the ships and we have no business in Customs,” he said sarcastically.