Hariri killing: Fugitive to be quizzed

The high living, scandals, and shady Syrian contacts of Lebanon's most notorious female fugitive have long linked the woman to the country's political corruption.

    Koleilat was arrested by Brazilian police on Sunday

    Now once again in prison - this time in far-off Brazil - Rana Koleilat may be connected to something more sinister: the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, former Lebanese prime minister.

    UN investigators have told police they want to question her in connection with the February 2005 assassination.

    Brazilian police said the investigators want to know whether money allegedly diverted from Al-Madina Bank in Lebanon, where Koleilat worked, was used to finance the slaying.

    Joseph Sayah, the Lebanese Consul General in Sao Paolo, said in a statement: "It's vital that Miss Koleilat submit herself before the UN commission for questioning."

    Koleilat spent a few months in prison in Lebanon last year, but then jumped bail on fraud charges in a banking scandal and fled the country, allegedly with Syrian help.

    She was arrested on Sunday by Brazilian police at a hotel apartment on the outskirts of Sao Paolo, Brazil's largest city with a sizable community of Lebanese descent.

    The UN commission's spokeswoman in Beirut would not confirm or deny that Koleilat is wanted for questioning.

    "We have no comment on the workings of the commission," she told The Associated Press on  Tuesday, insisting on anonymity, citing the investigation's secrecy.

    Syria blamed 

    Al-Hariri (R) was assassinated
    on 14 February 2005

    Al-Hariri was killed on 14 February in a truck bombing of his motorcade on a Beirut street, a turning point that sparked mass anti-Syrian protests and intensified international pressure that forced Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon.

    The UN commission in two earlier reports blamed Syrian and allied Lebanese intelligence officials in the murder of al-Hariri and 20 others.

    Speculation that Koleilat, 39, had fled to Brazil had been circulating in Beirut in recent months.

    So why was she arrested now?

    The Brazilian authorities said they acted on an anonymous tip.

    However, Koleilat's arrest came before the chief UN investigator briefs the Security Council Thursday on the investigation's progress, and her arrest could provide more ammunition against Syrian officials implicated in the assassination, particularly the last Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon.

    Lebanon has no extradition treaty with Brazil, where Koleilat also faces charges of attempting to bribe police officers to release her.


    Lebanese Prosecutor General Saeed Mirza was trying to find a legal basis to demand her extradition, the official news agency reported.

    Lebanese judicial officials told the AP on Tuesday that authorities will try to focus on the bank fraud charges to seek extradition.

    Koleilat's Brazilian lawyer said she told him she knows nothing about Al-Hariri's assassination or the bank's missing money and that she offered no bribe.

    Koleilat's connection with the private bank was engulfed in controversy.

    During her 12 years there, she rose from a clerk to an executive making top decisions.

    Koleilat quickly became the centre of the scandal shortly after it broke at Al-Madina in July 2003.

    Forgery scandal

    The Central Bank stepped in and
    took control of Al-Madina

    After detecting a cash deficit of more than $300 million, along with other irregularities, the Central Bank stepped in and took control of Al-Madina.

    A suit by the owners of the bank accused Koleilat of issuing a bad check for $3 million and of forging bank documents with the aim of embezzling.

    Several depositors also have filed suit against her and the bank owners.

    Koleilat was interrogated and jailed several months in 2004.

    She became an instant celebrity at the height of the banking scandal in 2003, with the media scrutinising her lifestyle, gifts and purchases.

    Koleilat reportedly handed out presents of expensive cars, apartments and houses to powerful people in Lebanon and in Syria.

    Her influence even spread into jail, where she reportedly had her cell painted and refurbished.

    Take-out food was ordered, and a cellular phone brought in.

    When she was released from jail, she was met by bodyguards and aides who supplied a phone into which she gleefully shouted orders for the beauty shop to prepare for her arrival, according to newspaper reports.

    Protection money

    It is alleged that her power stems from secretly marrying one of two brothers owning the private bank and that she had paid protection money to Syrian intelligence officials.

    Her case highlights the political corruption that ravaged Lebanon for decades, fuelled by the dominance of Syria.

    Paying off Syrian intelligence officers and giving gifts to influential politicians and business people for protection and favour was common practice during the period when Syria, through its intelligence network, influenced everything in Lebanon, from picking a president to harassing a political foe, and even cutting a business deal or finding a stolen car.

    Koleilat was freed on bail less than two months before al-Hariri was killed, allegedly under pressure from Major General Rustum Ghazale, Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon.

    She was whisked out of the country through Syria before the collapse of Syria's power in Lebanon with the withdrawal of its army in April.

    She reportedly spent a few months in Cairo, Egypt, before travelling to Brazil.

    Barely a month later, the bank's fugitive chairman, Adnan Abu Ayash, filed a lawsuit through a lawyer accusing Koleilat, Ghazale and three of his brothers of laundering and theft of more than $70 million in depositors' money.

    Lawyer Jean Azzi claimed Koleilat used to withdraw money from the bank and transfer it to accounts she opened in the names of Ghazale and his brothers.

    SOURCE: Unspecified


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