US sanctions top Lebanese politician Gebran Bassil for alleged graft

Washington (AFP) –


The US Treasury announced sanctions against Lebanon's former energy and foreign affairs minister Gebran Bassil on Friday, alleging he is behind corruption involving billions of dollars that has left the country's economy in shambles.

The sanctions are the first against a high-ranking Christian ally of the Shiite Hezbollah movement which has long been targeted by US sanctions and is blacklisted as a "terrorist" organisation

Bassil's designation was widely seen in Lebanon as part of a stepped up US campaign against the Iran-backed Hezbollah, which holds seats in Lebanon's parliament and government.

"The systemic corruption in Lebanon's political system exemplified by Bassil has helped to erode the foundation of an effective government that serves the Lebanese people," said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement.

"This designation further demonstrates that the United States supports the Lebanese people in their continued calls for reform and accountability."

Bassil, the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and head of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) party founded by Aoun, is often dubbed by many the "shadow president".

He was a main target of a nation-wide protest movement that started in October 2019 demanding the removal of politicians deemed inept and corrupt.

Activists believe he is behind many shady state dealings, especially during his time at the head of the energy ministry between 2009 and 2014.

Bassil, however, has repeatedly denied the accusations against him, insisting that his party is at the forefront of efforts to root out corruption from Lebanon.

On Friday he took to Twitter following the US decision saying "sanctions didn't scare me and promises didn't tempt me".

"I will not turn against any Lebanese national... and Im not saving myself to destroy Lebanon," he added.

"I have grown accustomed to injustice."

- 'Front companies' -

The US sanctions announcement cited Lebanon's ongoing electricity and garbage crises as results of deep corruption in government and said Bassil was "at the forefront" of graft in the country.

But it did not offer any specific details of the allegations.

"In 2017, Bassil strengthened his political base by appointing friends to positions and purchasing other forms of influence within Lebanese political circles," the Treasury said.

"In 2014, while Minister of Energy, Bassil was involved in approving several projects that would have steered Lebanese government funds to individuals close to him through a group of front companies."

"Bassil has repeatedly used his influence to stall government formation efforts, most recently in the current process, which has further delayed any chance of Lebanon pursuing meaningful economic reform," a senior government official said.

"With today's action, we encourage Lebanon to form a government that excludes politicians known to have engaged in corruption and to pursue meaningful economic reform."

However, the official insisted that the action Friday had "nothing to do" with the US election or attempts to form a government in Lebanon.

Friday's sanctions announcement seeks to freeze any of Bassil's assets under US jurisdiction and prevent him from accessing the global financial system.

It came as the United States, as well as former colonial power France, press for a new government in Lebanon to push urgent reforms.

But while France regards Hezbollah pragmatically, recognising its constituency among Shiites in Lebanon, Washington has stepped up its campaign against the movement violently opposed to Israel.