BEIRUT: A businessman whose Lebanese bank accounts were frozen after he was embroiled in corruption allegations has filed a lawsuit against the Italian prosecutor leading the investigation against him.
Farid Bedjaoui, an Algerian-born French and a relative of former Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Bedjaoui, is accused by Italian Prosecutor Fabio De Pasquale of acting as a conduit for bribes from Saipem, a subsidiary of Italian oil giant Eni, to Algerian authorities in order to help the Italian company win a series of oil contracts worth around 8 billion euros ($10.6 billion) between 2007 and 2010.
De Pasquale is expected to arrive in Beirut later this week to follow up on the investigation.
The Italian prosecutor sent a letter of request to the Lebanese judiciary asking it to provide documents concerning Bedjaoui’s bank accounts in Lebanon. But Bedjaoui’s lawyer Mohammad Matar told The Daily Star Tuesday that the letter contained misleading information about the case, comparing it to apparent flaws in De Pasquale’s previous investigations into former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Matar argued that judicial authorities in the U.S., Hong Kong and Ireland had all refused to hand over documents to De Pasquale concerning his investigation into fraud charges against Berlusconi, ruling that his request for legal assistance was weakened by misrepresentations, omissions and inconsistencies.
“He [De Pasquale] is making a similar attempt in Lebanon by filing a letter of request containing irregularities and misrepresentations based on malicious intent which is the reason behind our lawsuit,” Matar said.
Matar argued that the Lebanese judiciary should conduct its own investigations before deciding whether to grant De Pasquale’s requests for further information.
“Since De Pasquale is now considered a party in the lawsuit, he shouldn’t be provided with any documents until the case is settled,” Matar said.
“We asked the state prosecutor not to act on the letter of request submitted by Prosecutor De Pasquale before the Lebanese judiciary reaches a verdict in the lawsuit that we filed.”
All such letters of request are sent to the Foreign Ministry, which then refers them to the Justice Ministry, which in turn files them with the state prosecutor. The state prosecutor then decides whether to refer the requests to the Central Bank’s Special Investigation Commission, which examines each case, Matar said.
The SIC was founded in 2001 to investigate all reports of money laundering, embezzlement and funding for terrorism.
In 2013, it lifted the banking secrecy to investigate Bedjaoui’s accounts in Lebanon, and two weeks ago it froze his assets, Matar added.
The SIC investigated Bedjaoui’s accounts after the state prosecutor approved a previous letter of request by De Pasquale.
The Central Bank’s decision to freeze Bedjaoui’s assets is a precautionary measure to uphold Lebanon’s reputation in fighting suspected money laundering, according to Matar, who stressed that his client should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
“We support efforts to fight money laundering, but at the same time, it is important to preserve Lebanon’s banking secrecy rules, which have attracted capital that supports the economy,” Matar said.
“The balance between fighting money laundering and banking secrecy rules should be maintained to preserve confidence in the Lebanese banking system.”
This article was amended on Wednesday, April 09 2014
The original story incorrectly stated that Farid Bedjaoui is a relative of former Energy Minister Chakib Khelil. Bedjaoui is in fact a relative of former Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Bedjaoui.