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A man poses for a picture with a cardboard cut-out of Hassan Nasrallah (L), the head of Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, and former Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil hung by Lebanese protesters in downtown Beirut on August 8, 2020, during a demonstration against a political leadership they blame for a monster explosion that killed more than 200 people and disfigured the capital Beirut. (Photo by – / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States imposed sanctions on Friday on Gebran Bassil, the leader of Lebanon’s biggest Christian parliamentary bloc and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, accusing him of corruption and ties to Hezbollah.

Bassil heads the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), founded by Aoun, and has served as minister of telecoms, of energy and water and of foreign affairs.

The target of protests that erupted last year against a political class accused of pillaging the state, Bassil said in a Twitter post that sanctions did not scare him and that he had not been “tempted” by promises.

File photo: President Michel Aoun L and FPM leader Gebran Bassi

The sanctions could complicate efforts by Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri to navigate Lebanon’s sectarian politics and assemble a cabinet to tackle a financial meltdown, the country’s worst crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

A source familiar with the process said the move was likely to harden the FPM’s stance in negotiations on a new government needed to enact reforms demanded by foreign donors to tackle endemic corruption, waste and mismanagement to unlock aid.

FILE PHOTO: Free Patriotic Movement MP Michel Aoun (2nd left) , is shown during his meeting with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah ( rd right). The meeting was held in the presence of head of the FPM Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil (L) Nasrallah’s adviser Hajj Hussein Khalil ( 2nd right ) and Hezbollah’s top security official Wafiq Safa (R)

Bassil heads the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), founded by Aoun, and has served as minister of telecoms, of energy and water and of foreign affairs.

The target of protests that erupted last year against a political class accused of pillaging the state, Bassil said in a Twitter post that sanctions did not scare him and that he had not been “tempted” by promises.

The sanctions could complicate efforts by Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri to navigate Lebanon’s sectarian politics and assemble a cabinet to tackle a financial meltdown, the country’s worst crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

A source familiar with the process said the move was likely to harden the FPM’s stance in negotiations on a new government needed to enact reforms demanded by foreign donors to tackle endemic corruption, waste and mismanagement to unlock aid.

The Treasury Department said Bassil was at the “forefront of corruption in Lebanon” where successive governments have failed to reduce mounting sovereign debt or address failing infrastructure and the loss-making power sector that cost state coffers billions of dollars while power cuts persisted.

“Through his corrupt activities, Bassil has also undermined good governance and contributed to the prevailing system of corruption and political patronage that plagues Lebanon, which has aided and abetted Hezbollah’s destabilizing activities,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

“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,” he added.

He noted that Friday’s actions “build on the recent counterterrorism designations under Executive Order 13224 of former Lebanese officials, Youssef Fenianos and Ali Hassan Khalil, who put personal interests and those of Iran-backed Hezbollah ahead of the welfare of the Lebanese people.”

“Lebanese political leaders should be aware that the time has long passed for them to put aside their own narrow self-interests and instead work for the people of Lebanon,” Pompeo urged.

Pompeo added that he has also designated Bassil under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2020 due to “his involvement in significant corruption.” The move bars Bassil’s entry into the United States.

“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 Secretary of Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin. 

“This designation further demonstrates that the United States supports the Lebanese people in their continued calls for reform and accountability,” he added. 

A senior U.S. government official meanwhile said that “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.” 

“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,” the official added.

Bassil was sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which targets human rights abuses and corruption around the world. It calls for a freeze on any U.S. assets and prohibits Americans from doing business with him.

The State Department also imposed a ban on Bassil’s travel to the United States.

A senior U.S. official said the sanctions announcement was “not intended to impact a government formation process” in Lebanon. The official also denied any connection between the announcement and this week’s U.S. elections, saying such sanctions packages take months to prepare.

REUTERS

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