Unsolved Murder of Banker Stirs Fears that Compliance is ‘Risky Business’ in Lebanon
24 Jun 2021

A year after the head Byblos Bank’s ethics and anti-fraud department was found stabbed to death near his home in Hazmiyeh, an investigation by Lebanese police has concluded only that nothing had been stolen during the attack and no motive was readily apparent, the Financial Times reported Thursday.

Lebanese bankers, by contrast, have drawn a more specific conclusion: Antoine Dagher’s murder relates to his job.

Before leading the institution’s ethics and anti-fraud department, Dagher served as the head of Byblos Bank’s compliance division for a decade, where he oversaw efforts to identify and report suspected instances of money laundering and terrorist financing. But such a role is not without its risks.

In Lebanon, “compliance is a risky business, if you do it properly,” according to a former regulator who spoke to the FT. “You have Hezbollah, you have [politicians and their families], and you have corrupt banks’ management.”

The stakes of conducting compliance work in the nation have been exacerbated by Lebanon’s financial crisis, which sparked mass protests and a two-week shutdown of its banking sector in October 2019, the news outlet said. The consequences of the country’s economic crash are still easily discerned today.

“It’s not normal banking,” a senior banker told the FT. “We’re dealing with crisis and craziness.” 

Although a Lebanese banker was once seen by the public as a “precious commodity,” two years into the economic meltdown “your name is trash,” according to the banker, whom the news outlet did not identify.

The individual, who works directly with clients, said that bankers have been forced by the crash to reject what they consider to be valid customer requests to access their funds, while still permitting VIPs and bank managers to open new accounts and make withdrawals. The result is that bankers are increasingly targeted by enraged clients and protestors, some of whom have torched bank branches or accosted staff, the FT said.

In some instances, irate customers have pulled guns on managers and demanded access to the money in their accounts, according to the senior banker.

“We are afraid, we are living in a country where there is no security, [and] they can kill us,” the person said.

During the same period, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Jammal Trust Bank for purportedly providing financial services to members of Hezbollah–a step that has since forced the bank into liquidation. Two European money-laundering and embezzlement investigations have launched targeting the governor of Lebanon’s central bank, despite his denials of any wrongdoing. A severe dollar shortage has also made it easier for criminals to launder funds through cash-starved banks, according to the report.

“It is very hard to trace and verify the real source” of cash, a compliance specialist told the FT. As a consequence of the turmoil created by the crisis, “compliance is not first priority, surviving is first priority,” the specialist said.

Dagher, a father of two, is remembered by four of his colleagues as a decent and diligent banker, the newspaper said.

“He was the most ethical person at the bank,” said a former colleague, adding “if he could see what is happening now, I’m sure he would have resigned.”

“We never realized how dangerous his job is,” Dagher’s son told the FT.

Read more at the Financial Times

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