A prominent businessman and banker accused by US authorities of financing Hezbollah has denied the allegations and promised to follow the case with his lawyers in Washington.
“I can assure you Kassem Hejeij has no direct or indirect links with Hezbollah and we were surprised that the US Treasury Department applied sanctions on him,” a lawyer and a close associate of Hejeij told The Daily Star Thursday.
The US Treasury Department Wednesday targeted what it described as a key Hezbollah support network by designating Hezbollah member Adham Tabaja, his company Al-Inmaa Group for Tourism Works, and its subsidiaries, as well as Lebanese businessman Hejeij and Hezbollah Islamic Jihad member Husayn Ali Faour, as parties providing support and services to Hezbollah.
The US authorities said that all of the three individuals have provided support for Hezbollah, which Washington has officially labeled a terrorist organization.
“Today’s actions underscore the direct ties between Hezbollah’s commercial and terrorist activities, as well as the group’s continued exploitation of the legitimate commercial sector for financial, organizational and material support – from vehicles to investment and construction services – which enable the group to carry out acts of terrorism,” the statement by the US Treasury said.
But the lawyer said Hejeij plans to follow the case closely, appoint lawyers and collect all the account information and data he has to prove his innocence in Washington.
Hejeij is the chairman of Middle East and Africa Bank and owns hotels, beach resorts and prime properties in Beirut and the south.
Sources said Hejeij amassed his fortune in Africa and invested part of his wealth in hotels and real estate.
Although US officials did not name the bank in its sanctions order, the fact that Hejeij is the lender’s chairman has raised some questions about its future.
“The chairman does not know or have any relations with Husayn Ali Faour, who was also named by the US authorities as a supporter of Hezbollah. But as far as Adham Tabaja is concerned he had an account in the bank. But we removed his account from our bank when his name emerged in the report of the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control,” the lawyer said.
He added that Tabaja’s name was not previously on any list of individuals with ties to terrorist groups.
“We always doublecheck the names of any new client in the bank and we follow the basic rule of Know Your Customer procedure. We also deploy all the latest compliance procedures to determine if depositors had previous records,” the lawyers said.
The Middle East and Africa Bank has assets close to $1.7 billion and recorded a profit of almost $20 million in 2014, according to the bank.
But a leading banker told The Daily Star that many banks have decided to stop dealing with MEAB in US dollars. “We can’t take any chances these days. I think the US correspondent banks will also stop dealing with the bank,” he added.
However, the banker believed that MEAB was not in any immediate threat and it could still conduct business and transactions, but only in Lebanese currency.
The lawyer dismissed any possibility that MEAB would be forced to sell or close its business in the future.
“We have been assured by Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh that MEAB operations in Lebanon are sound and that there is [no] intention to take any action against this bank,” the lawyer said.
He also ridiculed claims by the Office of Foreign Assets Control that Jejeiji had financed Hezbollah.
“Hejeij is a smart businessman and is aware of the fact that this party is branded as a terrorist group by the Americans and for this reason he will never have any connection with them,” the lawyer argued.
He expressed confidence that the US would eventually remove Hejeij’s name from the list once American authorities see all the documents and accounts the bank has.
By Osama Habib
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