An investigation released by the AFP revealed that Beirut port was a hotbed of corruption, including smuggling, tax evasion, bribes, tender profits, questionable public auctions and fictional salaries, where high-ranking employees affiliated with the political forces benefited from.
It underlined Hezbollah’s usage of the port, through which the group could import anything without supervision, bribe officials and employees affiliated with political forces, so that a large segment of Lebanese people has demanded their departure.
Among these forces are the Free Patriotic Movement, led by President Michel Aoun, and the Future Movement, led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
“The port is one of the most corrupt facilities,” said researcher Mohamed Shams El-Din from the International Information Center, who has published several studies on corruption and tax evasion in Lebanon, adding that “there is no effective control by the government over it, whether in terms of collecting money or spending it”.
The port of Beirut was established in 1894, managed by a French company, then by a private company since 1960. At the beginning of the nineties, with the end of the company’s contract, a temporary official committee was appointed to manage the port until today.
As in all state institutions, the members of the committee are chosen according to their sectarian affiliation: a Sunni president and six members representing the main sects, and the privileged are supported by the most prominent political parties, „the same quota system in the state applies to the port,” says Shams El-Din.
According to several sources, Hezbollah, the most prominent political force in Lebanon, uses the port to for the benefit of businessmen affiliated with it and to import anything.
“It is known that there are goods for Hezbollah passing through the port and the airport,” former head of the State Council, Judge Shukri Sadr, says.
“This is apart from the land border crossings. In the port as at the airport, it has a military route through which goods pass without inspection or oversight,” he explains.
In 2019, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a senior Hezbollah official, Wafiq Safa, for exploiting “Lebanese ports and border crossings for smuggling and facilitating travel on behalf of Hezbollah,” according to a statement by the US embassy at the time.
The statement cited an example by saying, that Hezbollah has made use of Safa to facilitate the passage of materials, including illegal drugs and weapons through the port.
After the explosion, in which more than 190 people were killed and more than 6,500 injured, some people spoke about weapons and other illegal materials that Hezbollah stored in the port, but Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah denied anything linking his party to the port of Beirut.
A report prepared by a security apparatus a few months ago names at least five employees of customs in the goods inspection department that cannot be replaced.
It reveals in detail their links with officials affiliated with political forces: The Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, the Amal Movement headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces Party.
The report details how they and other port employees get bribes for deals of getting the goods out of the port. Experts are not certain, whether these illegal incomes benefit the parties directly or only the employees who are affiliated with them.
The temporary committee for managing the port, headed by Hassan Quraitem, who is affiliated with the Future Movement since 2002 before he was arrested with 24 other people, including Director General of Customs Badri Daher, affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement, as part of the ongoing investigation into the explosion that resulted from a fire broke out in a warehouse containing 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate for more than six years, without any protective measures.
Although port officials of all positions, political, judicial and security officials were aware of the seriousness of this storage, no measures were taken to avoid the disaster.
Until the explosion took place, Lebanon relied for most of its commercial operations on the port, through which more than 70 percent of the imported goods pass in a country that relies mainly on imports.
The annual revenue of the port was about $ 220 million, of which only 60 million goes to the state treasury, according to Shams El-Din, who explains that the remainder is supposed to be used for wages and for the development of a port, “but we really do not know where it is going,” he says.
As for customs, the annual tax evasion is estimated at one to two billion dollars in a country, where the budget deficit during the past two years has ranged between five and more than six billion dollars.
Over the years, corruption scandals came out to the public several times. However, those cases were being immediately closed, without anyone being held accountable.
Shams El-Din says that the prominent political forces use their influence to employ people affiliated with them in the port or appoint officials who turn a blind eye to smuggling operations and tax evasion in favor of businessmen who support specific parties, or even to have control over the contracts with the port administration, “as contracting for work was being consensual, and everyone benefits.”
Shams El-Din indicates that smuggling operations take place most of the time through fake charities that obtain a decree from the government exempting them from customs duties, although everyone knows the truth.
The security report shows that the port’s employees, including members of the security services who also work in it, receive bribes that vary according to the goods they speed up for passage, reduce their transit fees, or turn a blind eye to them.
For example, according to the report, the head of each division supervising the main entrance to the port would charge two hundred thousand Lebanese Liras for a used car to facilitate its passage from the port. While others at customs also receive their share of the used car, their task is to reduce its value during the evaluation process, thus reducing the tax on it.
The more dangerous thing than that is the “prohibited goods” such as weapons and drugs, for example, that goods are sometimes smuggled inside used cars, according to the report.
The irony is that the only scanner detector in the port is broken.
A customs source, who refused to be named, told AFP that “the scanner has been out of service since April 2019 due to a technical failure,” indicating that “it is very old and the cost of repairing and changing parts exceeds its price.” The port administration did not change it due to a dispute inside the government over payment, and stopping the scanning means that inspections are carried out only manually, which facilitates violations. Duty payments and taking goods out of the port are still being done on papers and manually.
The biggest corrupt
Investigative journalist Riad Kobeissi, who has paid special attention to the file of corruption in the port for years, believes that the customs service is the biggest corrupt, and the largest of its operations take place in the port. “All what they care about is to see the notes of Benjamin Franklin, in indication to the $100 note.
Kobeissi talks about “selling abandoned goods in fake public auctions, where profits are made out of them.” In public auction, goods left by their owners in the port are sold for various reasons, including their inability to pay their fees.
In a video released by Kobeissi this year, Daher appears standing in front of containers of household appliances, and people are gathering around him, screaming in a random and disorganized manner during an auction in the port. One of them offered Daher an “agreement” that includes paying a half less than the highest bidder in exchange ignoring the 23 motorcycles they were missing from a container he bought a while ago in another auction and was supposed to contain 93 motorcycles.
“This is a simple example of what we describe as a fake auction, because in reality once the minimum amount is approved, no auction takes place.” Many people question the ability of the Lebanese state’s investigation to reach the truth about the explosion due to lack of confidence in institutions. Hence, some demand an international investigation.
“No matter how good the investigating judge is, who he is, how can we believe in an investigation that depends on the security services that are ruled by political forces?” he concludes.