BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri Friday lashed out at the Association of Banks in Lebanon for observing a one-day strike in protest of proposed taxes, saying local banks make "obscene" profits from local clients.
Banks remained closed as the association pleaded with the speaker to help reach a solution suitable for both the private and the public sector.
In remarks carried by the National News Agency, Berri refused to attend a scheduled meeting with a delegation from the association, insisting its president, "Francois Bassil, publicly apologizes for verbally attacking lawmakers and Parliament."
The delegation met instead with Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil who is also Berri's aide.
The association announced late Thursday that banks will close in protest of taxes put forward by lawmakers to finance the public sector wage hike bill. The proposals include raising the 5 percent tax on deposit interest revenue to 7 percent.
The call for a strike came as MPs met once again in Parliament to debate the controversial draft law, expected to cost the treasury $1.6 billion annually.
The group criticized lawmakers for making “random decisions” for political purposes, warning that such a step would have negative effects on inflation rates in the country, the stability of the national currency and the purchasing power of the Lebanese.
The state-run agency also said that lawmakers and Berri voiced anger over Bassil's remarks during the late session.
During Thursday the committee meeting, the speaker said banks were making "obscene profits from Lebanese clients.”
"Banks will not get out of paying taxes and their strike is similar to shooting themselves in the foot," Berri was quoted as saying.
The committees will convene Friday at 3 p.m. and are expected to approve the bill and refer it to Parliament for final endorsement.
Among other proposals to finance the pay raise, the Joint Committees approved fines for property violations; the annual fine amounts to 2.5 percent of the value of any illegally obtained land and 7.5 percent of the value of any illegally constructed building on seafront properties.
The Union Coordination Committee, which represents civil servants and teachers, suspended their strike and protests until Monday based on a promise made by Berri that Parliament would pass the draft law before then.
MP Hani Qobeissi filed a lawsuit against Bassil for defamation and slander against lawmakers and politicians after he accused them of embezzling public money.
The association held a news conference to clarify their stance, saying taxes imposed on bankers would force them to raise the interest rate on personal loans.
“We want to find a solution to the dispute between the economic committees and bankers on one side and the parliamentary committees on the other,” Bassil told reporters, adding that the wage hike demand was fair.
“The issue of the salary scale has been under discussion for decades and should have been resolved several years ago when we proposed the establishment of a committee to periodically raise the public sector salary according to the price index,” he said.
Voicing fears of repercussions that could ensue following the approval of the draft law, Bassil appealed to the speaker to bridge the gap between lawmakers and banks.
“I urge Speaker Berri to use his wisdom and his patriotism to narrow the divide and resolve the problem,” he said.
Bassil also responded to the law suit against him, saying he “did not attack any lawmaker or accuse anyone of stealing money.”
“The reason I address lawmakers is because they are public representatives and people like us, and they should protect the state’s treasury and banks as well,” he said.