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Lebanon removes banking secrecy rules to fight corruption

Lebanon’s parliament approved on Thursday a law to remove decades-old banking secrecy rules in order to better fight rampant corruption that has pushed the country to the edge of economic collapse.

The move opens the way for investigations into bank accounts of current and former officials such as Cabinet ministers, legislators and civil servants, state-run National News Agency reported.

The restoration of stolen public money in the corruption-plagued nation has been a key demand of protesters who have been demonstrating since mid-October against Lebanon’s ruling elite, which they blame for widespread corruption and mismanagement.

Anti-government protesters cover their faces with masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus during a protest against a general amnesty law being proposed in parliament, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, May 28, 2020. The Arabic placard reads, "General justice and not a general amnesty." (AP PhotoHussein Malla)

The approval of the law came two months after the Cabinet approved a draft resolution to abolish the country’s banking secrecy laws, which have turned tiny Lebanon into the region’s Switzerland, attracting clients from around the Arab world who prized the anonymity its banks offered.

The new law gives powers to National Anti-corruption Commission and a Special Investigative Committee at the central bank to investigate bank account of officials, the report said.

For Thursday's session, Lebanese lawmakers convened inside a Beirut theater so that they could observe social distancing measures imposed during the pandemic. Dozens of anti-government demonstrators briefly clashed with riot police outside as legislators met.

An anti-government protester flashes victory signs during a protest against a general amnesty law being proposed in parliament, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, May 28, 2020. (AP PhotoHussein Malla)

As lawmakers in face masks arrived at the theater, known as the UNESCO palace, paramedics sprayed them with disinfectant before they entered, one at a time.

Lebanon has been facing its worst economic crisis in decades, with unemployment figures soaring and the local currency losing more than half of its value against the dollar.

After the banking secrecy measure was passed, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri suspended the session until later in the afternoon when the legislators were to discuss a draft general amnesty law.

Lebanese policemen wear masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus during a protest against a proposed general amnesty law in parliament, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, May 28, 2020. (AP PhotoHussein Malla)

The amnesty issue has deeply divided parliamentary blocs, with Christian groups calling for pardoning Lebanese who fled to Israel after it ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, while former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and others want the release of hundreds of Islamists held as terror suspects.

Lebanon and Israel are at a state of war and some Lebanese who fled to Israel now hold Israeli citizenship. Scores of protesters demonstrated in Beirut and southern Lebanon on Thursday against pardoning those living in Israel.

An anti-government protester wears a mask with Lebanese revolution logos to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, during a protest against a general amnesty law being proposed in Parliament, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, May 28, 2020. (AP PhotoHussein Malla)

An anti-government protester holds a Lebanese flag and shouts slogans during a protest against a general amnesty law being proposed in parliament, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, May 28, 2020. (AP PhotoHussein Malla)