• World

The Money Scandal Behind the Hariri Assassination

5 minute read
Mitch Prothero/Beirut

The U.N. report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri released last week circulated in two versions: one available on the U.N. website that had names and passages deleted, and another, more privately available version with the deletions restored. It was in the unedited version that the names of high-ranking Syrian government officials were visible—and thus implicated—in the killing.

But in versions available in English-language Mideast media and Websites, there was another deletion of interest, that of an institution: the Bank al Madina. While the U.N. report said that Hariri’s murder was political, it went on to say that individuals involved in the plot may have had other motives, including fraud, corruption and money-laundering. In short, it recommended: “Follow the money.”

The Bank al Madina collapsed in early 2003, after it had been looted of about $1.65 billion. Several people in that fraud were also named in the U.N. report to the Hariri assassination. Lebanese legal sources say that while local prosecutors cannot yet prove that the plot was paid for with money originating from Madina accounts, there are significant indications that the bank’s collapse and the assassination may be linked. “Madina money must have seemed untraceable to [the plotters],” says one Lebanese attorney who has discussed the case with prosecutors.

Even before its collapse, Madina was key to the shadowy financial dealings of Lebanese and Syrian politicians, as well as a way for Saddam Hussein’s Central Bank of Iraq to launder money. It was during this period that large payments—in cash, cars, contracts and real estate—were allegedly made by the bank’s executive secretary to key Lebanese and Syrian officials. “It has been, to my knowledge, a key money-laundering operation in the Middle East, even in the years preceding the collapse of the bank,” says one former U.S. intelligence operative who worked extensively on organized crime issues in the 1990s.

The bank’s executive secretary, Rana Koleilat, was jailed on multiple fraud counts from early 2004 until just prior to the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005. Koleilat was spirited away from her jail cell, apparently to Cairo, where she is said to be living under an assumed name. Lebanese critics of Syria say this was to keep her from providing local prosecutors with evidence against the Syrian overlords of Lebanon. Madina’s key documents had been sealed by the head of Syrian Military Intelligence in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Rustom Ghazali. Ghazali’s predecessor Ghazi Kenaan was found dead, apparently a suicide, in Damascus in the week leading up to the release of the U.N. report, which mentions Kenaan and Ghazali in both edited and unedited versions.

The Chairman of the Lebanon’s Central Bank reportedly received threats at about the time the Madina investigation was put on ice in mid- to late 2003. In an interview, Riad Salameh simply says, “Whatever happened, we did our duty to protect depositors and protect the reputation of the country’s banking system.”

Documents show that Ghazali’s family received millions of dollars, some going to the general’s brothers (allegedly through fake credit cards issued by the bank). Another alleged payment cited in the Lebanese and Western press includes $300,000 in cash going to the general himself. A private investigative report commissioned by Madina’s principal owner Adnan Ayyash (who also faces charges over the collapse and is at odds with his former executive secretary) alleges that Rana Koleilat handed over a Beirut apartment worth an estimated $2.5 million to the office manager of Lieut. Colonel Maher Assad, the brother of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The U.N. report has linked the colonel to the Hariri assassination. Ayyash’s private report also alleges that Madina may have overpaid the son-in-law of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, an ally of Syria, for a villa. The bank forked over $10 million for property that has now been appraised at $2.5 million.

Before his death, Rafiq Hariri had denounced the closure of the Madina investigation and had accused the Syrians of financial corruption. But, given the Byzantine nature of Lebanese politics, there may have been more going on than high-mindedness. Before the bank collapsed, the Koleilat family had been setting themselves up as political and economic rivals to the Hariris, spending millions on charities and gifts in an effort to win over Hariri’s Sunni constituency. But would that have made them natural allies of the Syrians, who disliked Hariri for his ties to the west? Or was the flood of cash from Madina simply too massive for anyone to have any idea of the use that all of the largesse was being put to? The weeks ahead should provide more revelations now that the U.N. has turned the international tide against Syrian influence in Lebanon—and sources in that country may no longer be afraid to speak.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com