BEIRUT: The head of the Higher Relief Committee Ibrahim Bashir was placed on administrative leave Friday, the office of Prime Minister Najib Mikati said, following claims he smuggled large sums of money from the state institution to foreign accounts.
Bashir, appointed in 2011 to head the committee which disburses funds during emergencies and tragedies in Lebanon, denied the allegations.
Maj. Gen. Mohammad Kheir, the general-secretary of the Higher Defense Council, has been tasked with temporarily replacing Bashir, Mikati’s office told The Daily Star, adding that Bashir was placed on administrative leave.
Media reports Thursday and Friday alleged Bashir had transferred abroad public funds to the tune of $10 million. In one transaction, some $3.6 million were allegedly transferred to a joint bank account in Belarus. The account, the reports said, was in the name of Bashir and his wife.
The claims, Bashir told LBCI, were “political” and the work of the Cabinet’s secretary-general, Suheil Bouji, who he accused of “fabricating the news.”
“The committee does not have this sum of money and the money I sent to Belarus was a very humble sum for my son,” he told the television channel.
In separate remarks to Al-Jadeed television, he said that the accusations emerged after he transformed the HRC "from a Beiruti-Sunni [thiefdom] that used to offer help to a limited class of people into an institution that works for the sake of all the Lebanese without any exception."
He accused Bouji of being behind the campaign against him and said that the Cabinet general-secretary had, through intermediaries, promised to see him removed from his post.
Bashir told media officials are always looking for a “scapegoat in light of political disputes” and voiced willingness to undergo questioning over the allegations next week.
Bashir, judicial sources told The Daily Star, met earlier Friday with acting State Prosecutor Judge Samir Hammoud and requested an investigation be launched.
A statement from the Mikati’s office Thursday said the caretaker prime minister was informed about the case by the Central Bank and that the matter was referred to the Public Prosecution for investigation.
According to the media, Lebanon’s Central Bank referred the case to the judiciary after receiving reports about Bashir’s suspicious activity from the Special Investigation Commission (SIC) for fighting money laundering, also known as Lebanon's Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU).
The SIC is an independent legal entity with judicial status at the Central Bank. It receives, analyzes and investigates suspicious transaction reports (STRs) and ensures compliance of banks and financial institutions.
Bashir, a retired Brigadier General, was appointed by Mikati’s Cabinet as the secretary-general of the Higher Relief Committee in Oct. 2011, following the resignation of his predecessor Yahya Raad.
Asked whether Mikati asked him to suspend his activities at the HRC, Bashir, speaking to Al-Jadeed, said: “This is not true: I asked Mikati to be given leave because I will not allow myself to be in a post where there is a way against me.”