At about seven in the morning one June day last year, veteran banker Antoine Dagher left his home in one of the largest banks in Lebanon, his employer for the past 20 years. But the head of ethics and anti-fraud at Byblos Bank never arrived.
A few hours later, Dagher’s wife found his body on the ground near his gray Honda car near their home in Hazmieh, an exclusive suburb minutes from downtown Beirut. He had been stabbed five times.
A year later, the murder of a father of two is hanging over the once prestigious Lebanese banking industry. In a police report seen by the Financial Times, investigators said nothing was stolen, but they did not identify any motive and did not charge anyone.
With no clear answers available, many bankers have come to what they see as an inevitable outcome: his murder is related to his business. Lebanese banks are under attack from protesters angry about their role in the country’s financial crisis and from customers unable to withdraw their money. “It was terrifying and shocking,” said one of Dagher’s former classmates. “So far, we don’t understand anything.”
Prior to running the Bank’s Ethics and Anti-fraud division, Dagher was the Head of Compliance at Byblos Bank for ten years.
The job of conformity bankers is to ensure that employers comply with domestic and international rules relating to money laundering and terrorist financing. “Compliance is a risky business, if you do it right,” said a former regulator in Lebanon. The stakes are high: “You have Hezbollah حزب [a paramilitary and political party designated a terrorist organisation by the US], you have [politicians and their families]And you have corrupt bank management.”
An already difficult task has been complicated by the country’s financial crisis, which erupted amid mass protests and two-week bank closures in October 2019. Lebanon’s problems, exacerbated by the pandemic and the massive explosion in Beirut port last year, have caused its problems. Its roots go back to decades of state mismanagement and political corruption.
About 40 banks serve Lebanon’s seven million residents, many of whom have invested heavily in government debt as well as the central bank. According to the World Bank, about 70 percent of total banking assets are exposed to Lebanese sovereignty. The country defaulted on its debt last year, and banks have since been forced to sell offshore operations and lay off staff in sweeping restructurings.
Lebanon’s gross domestic product has shrunk by more than a fifth since the crisis began and its economy has been largely liquid. “This is no ordinary banking,” said a senior banker. “We are dealing with crisis and insanity.” The sector’s reputation has been destroyed. “The Lebanese banker was a precious commodity,” said the senior banker, citing the successes of financiers in major banks abroad. But two years after the crash, your name has become Now “waste”.
Disillusionment within the Lebanese banking sector is common. While there is no law on capital controls, individual banks have severe restrictions on withdrawals and transfers. The customer-facing banker said he has to refuse what he considers valid requests for access to funds, such as medical bills, while providing certain services, such as new accounts or withdrawals, to only important clients or bank managers.
With financiers denigrating their role in the crisis, and depositors cut off from their money, angry and protesting customers set bank branches on fire and mistreated employees. The customer-facing banker said the clients pulled the guns from the managers, demanding they withdraw their own money.
The customer-facing banker said their work was now “very dirty”. But the employees have no choice to keep their jobs and keep them safe: “We are afraid, we live in a country where there is no security, they can kill us.”
Their fear stems from the culture of impunity in Lebanon. Dagher’s murder is not unique in remaining unsolved. Dozens of political assassinations have gone unpunished in recent years. The inability of the judiciary and security to solve the murders. . . It really led to a loss of public confidence in [their] capacity. . . “To protect them,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The pressure also came from outside Lebanon. More banks were penalized in the run-up to the crisis. In 2019, the US Treasury sanctioned Jammal Trust Bank for allegedly aiding Hezbollah – and it is now in liquidation. The Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon is the subject of two European investigations into money laundering and embezzlement. Denies any wrongdoing.
The severe shortage of dollars has made it easier for criminals to launder money through banks desperate for cash. “It is very difficult to trace and verify the true source” of the criticism, said one compliance specialist. “Compliance is not the first priority, survival is the first priority,” said the specialist since the crisis began.
Byblos Bank said it cooperated with the official investigation into Dagher’s death, but declined to answer other questions. Four bankers said Dagher was popular and known for decency and diligence. “He was the most ethical person in the bank,” said a former colleague, adding, “If only he could see what’s going on now.” [in the sector]I’m sure he would have resigned.”
His daughter, Michelle, said Dagher was “everyone’s favorite”. But Eli, his son, added: “We never really realized how dangerous his job was.”