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October 26, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2590

Hizbullah-Affiliated Businessman's Ponzi Scheme Causes Upheaval in Lebanon

October 26, 2009
Lebanon | Special Dispatch No. 2590

Hizbullah-affiliated Shi'ite Lebanese businessman Salah 'Izz Al-Din, suspected of running a $2 billion Ponzi scheme, was arrested in Lebanon in early September 2009 after declaring bankruptcy. [1]

Several days after the scandal hit the headlines, the Lebanese daily Al-Safir reported that thousands of Lebanese and other nationals had lost money in 'Izz Al-Din's scheme, and that the investigation was being closely monitored by Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri, Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, and prominent Lebanese Shi'ite leader Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadhlallah. [2] It was also reported that many senior Hizbullah officials had invested money with 'Izz Al-Din and suffered financial losses. [3] Fuad Al-Hashem, columnist for the Kuwaiti daily Al-Watan,claimed that the Hizbullah organization had likewise lost $683 million in investments with 'Izz Al-Din. [4]

In the aftermath of the scandal, numerous articles appeared in the Lebanese media criticizing Hizbullah and holding it responsible for the fraud, because of 'Izz Al-Din's affiliation with it. Hizbullah was blamed for encouraging the public to trust 'Izz Al-Din and to invest with him, and some even demanded that it compensate those who sustained losses.

Following are excerpts from articles on the subject:

Nasrallah: Senior Hizbullah Officials Invested in the Scheme

Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah denied any connection between his organization and 'Izz Al-Din's bankruptcy, but acknowledged that Hizbullah and several of its top officials had invested funds with 'Izz Al-Din. Nasrallah accused certain elements in Lebanon of using the scandal to harm the reputation of Hizbullah senior officials, called all insinuations that Hizbullah had had a hand in 'Izz Al-Din's bankruptcy "lies," and denied that Hizbullah senior officials had any money at their disposal. He also denied that Hizbullah had encouraged the public or its own members to invest funds with 'Izz Al-Din, and contended that the amount of money 'Izz Al-Din had been claimed to possess prior to his bankruptcy was exaggerated, estimating the total sum at $400,000 at most.

However, Nasrallah admitted the possibility that "Hizbullah may have invested funds with 'Izz Al-Din," but claimed that "their sum total could not have exceeded four million dollars." He added: "From the outset there were rumors, and we have heard a lot of talk, but now it is clear that [only] a very small number of Hizbullah officials had invested funds with 'Izz Al-Din. Some of them invested the money they had received as compensation for their homes destroyed during the July [2006] war, while others had got some money together with the help of their families… A rumor reached me that one senior [Hizbullah] member had invested a million dollars [with 'Izz Al-Din]. Naturally, this gave rise to uncertainty and numerous questions, so I asked him directly and got a straight answer: [he said that] the money had been put together by his brothers, who, as everyone knows, are tradesmen and are engaged in commerce, and that one of his sons had invested about 70 thousand dollars [as well], but that he [the Hizbullah member] personally had not got a penny to his name. I asked him where this money had come from, and he replied that he would cooperate with any Hizbullah-led investigation [of this matter], and that he had collected the money from his brothers, [other] relations, and friends, and invested it with 'Izz Al-Din."

The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported that following the [scandal], Nasrallah had decided to hold a series of talks within Hizbullah in order to clarify certain issues and to deal with these phenomena, which were foreign to the spirit of the organization and everyone associated with it. [5]

Ibrahim Al-Amin Criticizes Hizbullah's New Mores

In light of this episode, Ibrahim Al-Amin, chairman of the executive committee of the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar and known to be close to Hizbullah, published an article harshly criticizing Hizbullah and the new lifestyle and mores its members had adopted - which, he said, contravene shari'a and the Spartan ways that it prescribes.

He wrote: "No one can justify the 'Izz Al-Din [affair], and it should be taken as a powerful warning against the social circle which he represents in conduct and in rationale… This man is inseparable from Hizbullah - not just close to it - [meaning that] most of those who invested with him belong to families [associated with] Hizbullah, its members, or supporters. In fact, the main reason that many people trusted him was that he was rumored to be 'Hizbullah's partner.'

"It is impossible to stem the rumors that are being spread regarding the actual amount of money lost [in the scheme], the difference between the total investments and the sum people were supposed to receive in return, or the identity of the investors - [in fact,] the lists that have appeared in the media include everyone, even - and this is unprecedented - prominent Hizbullah leaders, both known and unknown…"

Hizbullah and Its Affiliates Have Violated Shari'a Principles

"So why should the recent events be regarded as a warning? Firstly, because it is surprising that a religious milieu that follows the principles and rules of shari'a [i.e. Hizbullah] should object to banking operations that violate shari'a principles [i.e. lending money with interest] while at the same time trying to justify their own profit of 40% from shady machinations of that man ['Izz Al-Din]. [Because] eventually it became clear that these schemes… had been wrecked on the shoals of the recent global [economic] crisis - which first erupted on the stock exchange and its ancillaries [where interest is earned on investments]…

"In other words, those who objected to the principle of earning interest on money, as practiced by the banks, accepted the same transaction based on a different rationale."

Abandoning Asceticism in Favor of Cupidity

"Secondly, [these events should be taken as a warning,] since it is extremely odd that this milieu, which had for generations followed an ascetic lifestyle, suddenly decided to switch to another [lifestyle] that entails living beyond its means and revolves around what is generally known as cupidity. If this is not the case, then why risk such [large] sums of money?...

"It is as if [this milieu] had, overnight, cast aside all rational and realistic reasoning, along with its unassuming lifestyle and modest needs. Many [of its members] relinquished the principle whereby a man [must always be ready] to sacrifice his life in this transient world, and embarked on a quest for… consumerism, which is incompatible with both the reality of their life and with the level of their cultural and social development, and which also contravenes their social rituals, interests, and preoccupations.

"[These people] seek to present themselves in a light that, while not unlawful - since anyone has the right to live like that - is incompatible with the principles of asceticism and self-sacrifice for a cause that calls for sacrifice in human [lives] and human blood…" [6]

Endnotes:


[1] On September 12, 2009, Lebanon's financial prosecutor-general Judge Fawzi Adham pressed charges against 'Izz Al-Din for embezzlement, fraud, passing bad checks, and violating Lebanese financial laws. Al-Nahar (Lebanon), September 13, 2009.

[2] Al-Safir (Lebanon), September 1, 2009.

[3] E.g., Al-Nahar (Lebanon), September 5, 2009. On September 4, 2009, Al-Arabiya TV reported that the leader of Hizbullah's parliamentary bloc, Muhammad Ra'd, as well as former Hizbullah MP Amin Sherri and Hizbullah coordinating committee head Wafiq Safa had also lost money in 'Izz Al-Din's scheme. Senior Hizbullah sources denied the Al-Arabiya report, and Amin Sherri published a communiqué denying any connection with the scheme. The Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal reported, on September 2, 2009, that Hizbullah MP Hussein Al-Hajj Hassan had pressed charges against 'Izz Al-Din and demanded a return of the US$200,000 that he had invested in his scheme.

[4] Al-Watan (Kuwait), September 2, 2009.

[5] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 8, 2009.

[6] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), September 5, 2009.

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