Thu, Sep 24, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Hezbollah embarrased by Shiite financier

MADOFF COMPARISON Prosecutors said Shiite businessman Salah Ezzedine and his partner may have cheated their investors out of as much as US$1 billion

AP , TOURA, LEBANON

A Middle East version of the Bernie Madoff scandal is threatening to tarnish Hezbollah’s reputation in Lebanon for being incorruptible, and the powerful Shiite militant movement faces calls to bail out small investors to keep its position from being undercut.

Hundreds of Lebanese sold land or emptied their retirement savings to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars to Salah Ezzedine, a Shiite businessman with connections to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has said it had nothing to do with the alleged swindle and has so far resisted pressure to rescue the investors.

Nevertheless, many investors put their trust in Ezzedine, principally because of the financier’s connections to Hezbollah and because of his reputation as a pious Shiite. Ezzedine’s investment firm promised as much as 40 percent in annual returns, residents of the southern village of Toura said.

Ezzedine and his partner, Youssef Faour, have been arrested on suspicion of cheating investors out of perhaps up to US$1 billion, prosecutors say. Earlier this month, they were charged with fraudulent embezzlement, a crime punishable by 15 years in prison.

Alleged victims included well-off Shiites but also smaller investors who sold land or pulled out savings to bundle the cash and give it to Ezzedine.

Lebanese are comparing this to the swindle by Madoff, now serving a 150-year prison sentence for masterminding a multibillion-dollar scheme that burned thousands.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah earlier this month denied the group had any connection with the financier. Still, Hezbollah is trying to ward off any blow to its status among loyalists.

The losses among people of all economic levels have stunned Shiites, who hold an abiding faith in Hezbollah’s integrity and incorruptibility. While many still vow loyalty to the movement, they feel it should support its followers and pay compensation.

Judicial officials said the 47-year-old Ezzedine had major business interests, particularly in oil and iron industries, in Eastern Europe and suffered substantial losses when oil prices fell last year. They have not detailed what Ezzedine did with the money taken from investors.

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