A Judge Runs Amok
The collapse of the Lebanese state grows imminent as news of different sectors unraveling emerges every day. The latest crisis reached the judiciary, which — though already known for its politicization and sectarianism — currently deals with a judge whose erratic, politicized personality violates all the norms of judicial behaviors and traditions. This controversial judge is Mount Lebanon state prosecutor, Ghada Aoun.
Judge Ghada Aoun’s recent raids on two financial exchange companies, aided by civilian supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and several activists, is a novelty in modern Lebanese history. Aoun broke the locks on metal gates at the entrance of Mecattaf Holding Group as her supporters cheered and shouted: “May God be with you, Ghada Aoun.” Those accompanying her confiscated private property and damaged company offices without legal justifications. Many observers described this campaign against economic institutions as bizarre, involving myriad characters, many of whom are not part of the judicial system, ranging from religious nuns to political partisans.
Aoun’s flagrant violation of the law is apparent in a statement by Victor Saouma, one of her IT people, who accompanied her. He confirmed in testimony on April 28 that he involved himself in the case “because of the family friendship that binds me with judge Aoun, who consults me personally on some issues related to information,” as cited by press reports. As for the official security officers who accompanied Aoun, Public Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oweidat asked the Director-General of State Security, Maj. Gen. Antoine Saliba, to suspend these officers, whose presence on the scene was questionable. In the wake of Aoun’s judicial violations, Oueidat dismissed her from investigating possible breaching of currency export rules and replaced her in late April with another judge, Samer Lishaa. Her disrespect for judicial hierarchy was clear when she refused to abide by the decision of her superiors and continued her investigation. Meanwhile, President Michel Aoun and his political parliamentary bloc provide Judge Aoun with political cover.
Supporters of Judge Aoun and the Freedom Patriotic Movement hail her as a hero fighting corruption, while critics point out her lack of respect for due process. Both groups almost came to blows as protests in Awkar turned into a clash, with people shoving and beating each other, leaving one person wounded. This whole circus led one parliamentarian, Farid al-Khazen, to tweet a request to the president asking him, “I call on the President to intervene to end the play in Awkar; Enough, your Excellency, Mr. President, enough destruction of the judiciary, the entity, and especially your reign.”
Among Judge Aoun’s alleged charges against the Mecattaf Company are withdrawing dollars from the Lebanese market and shipping the funds abroad. Aoun also claims that Mecattaf Company possesses data with the names of those who smuggled money abroad, claims the company considers as false on purely technical grounds since it does not perform such functions. According to interviews and press reports, Mecattaf is abiding by the Code of Money and Credit, meaning that it is subject to banking secrecy. Mecattaf said earlier that the company ships currency under prior authorization from the Central Bank and under the supervision of the banking Central Commission. “The money we ship is ours, whether in dollars, pounds, sterling, or euros.” They add that “if we want to ship money abroad from Lebanon, we buy it as a commodity and transfer it aboard. Most importantly, money shipping is done only from and to a banking or a financial institution. There are no limits to shipping, but we are not allowed to transfer money to a third party.”
Aoun raided the same office three times in what many Lebanese critics called a “judiciary live drama.” Judge Barkan Saad, head of the Judicial Inspection Authority, called Aoun as she forced her way into the building and asked her to leave, but she refused to comply. She transported the retrieved company computers and documents in her personal vehicle, in apparent violation of the law. With the help of two nuns who belong to the Ibn al-Ansan association, she used their offices in the Zekrit area to unload the information from the computers and the server with the help of two technical people. Neither the nuns nor the technical people have anything to do with the case.
Many questions arose to the bafflement of many as to how these nuns were related to the financial issues under investigation. The key figure in the Ibn al-Ansan association is the controversial Mother Agnes Maryam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun and head of the monastery of Saint Jacob al-Maqtis for the Greek Melkite Catholics, who is accused of having close ties to the Bashar al-Assad regime and his intelligence services. She played a vocal role in broadcasting the regime’s narratives, including refuting the chemical massacres of 2013. According to Nader Fawz of Al Modon, Aoun appears to have a personal relationship to Mother Agnes, and there are fears that Mecattaf’s information could land in the hands of the Syrian regime, especially considering that the Mecattaf company’s owner is Michel Mecattaf, a Lebanese figure who fought against Syrian occupation of Lebanon and currently is the publisher of Nida al-Watan, a pro-opposition newspaper. Aoun’s close ties with the nun appear to go deeper than politics, but are spiritual and religious. According to press reports, while Aoun was attempting to enter the offices of the Mecattaf company she complained of a health disorder, which led her to call upon Mother Agnes instead of a medical professional, a testament of her belief in religious guidance.
Aoun’s apparent impartiality, as well as illegally transporting files in her personal vehicle, invalidate the investigation, according to Nida al-Watan. Following complaints against her judicial behavior, Aoun appeared before the Judicial Inspection Authority for a hearing that lasted four hours and involved six criminal cases and 28 complaints. The judiciary sector has openly condemned the situation. Caretaker Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm states she refuses to be “a false witness to the decay of the judiciary and the fall of the fig leaf in this state,” claiming the lack of confidence in the judiciary constitutes a major insult, as cited by press reports.
Exacerbating the lack of confidence in the Lebanese judiciary are statements by Judge Aoun that suggest conduct that rejects hierarchy and control: “I do not care about any decision… I am with the people,” she reportedly told Alexander Najjar, Mecattaf’s lawyer. As cited by The961 website, Aoun was caught on video asking for security support and urging those who might be hesitant to follow her orders, “Come and I’ll cover you...I’ll cover you. I’ll say that you got a dispatch (a written order).”
It was feared that the events in Awkar would become a pattern of non-judicial behavior. As anticipated, Aoun next raided the Pro Sec company, a domestic security and cash transport of money and valuables. However, she failed to enter the building on her first attempt because of bodyguards and employees blocking the entrance and chanting slogans against her. Her raid on Pro Sec reproduced the same conduct, breaking and destroying private property. Before Aoun left the company, there was fear of violence as voices heard from the company’s security employees stating that if she wanted to enter by force, they would spill blood. However, she successfully raided the office the following day.
Just like with Mecattaf, Pro Sec filed a complaint against Judge Aoun before the Public Prosecutor, Judge Ghassan Oweidat. Pro Sec accused Aoun of “insulting” and assaulting the reputation of the company’s owner and management, even though they affirmed their absolute willingness to cooperate with the judiciary authorized to decide on these matters, clearly indicating that Aoun lacks such authority after her superior asked her to cease working on this matter.
Hardly any Lebanese would not support fighting corruption, not to mention stand up with an honest judge. But Lebanon’s judiciary mirrored and reflected the corruption that infects all branches and corners of government. Thus, while Judge Aoun’s proclaimed agenda should have gained unified support in Lebanon, the outcome has been the opposite. Her campaign is an attempt to wreak vengeance on President Aoun's opponents, and thus the country has reaped mistrust in the only institution thought of as the most qualified to combat corruption. Unsurprisingly, the two companies targeted by Judge Aoun, or at least the Mecattaf one, whose owner is an opponent of president Aoun, have incurred her wrath.
Copyright © 2021 by Al Jadid