The Treasury designation did not mention Gebran Bassil's alliance or links to Hezbollah, but the sanctions targeting him appeared to be part of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran and its allies in the region.
The US Treasury has slapped sanctions on Lebanon’s former foreign minister and a leading Christian political ally of the Hezbollah group, singling him out for what it said was his role in corruption.
Gebran Bassil, a lawmaker who leads the largest bloc in parliament and a son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, has emerged as a major target of Lebanese protesters who thronged streets in an uprising last year over endemic corruption and state mismanagement.
The Treasury designation did not mention Bassil's alliance or links to Hezbollah, but the sanctions targeting him appeared to be part of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran and its allies in the region.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a statement, said Bassil contributes to a prevailing system of corruption and political patronage in Lebanon that has “aided and abetted Hezbollah's destabilising activities.”
Lebanese leaders must listen to their people, implement reforms, and end corruption. Today, the U.S. is designating Gibran Bassil, a corrupt former cabinet minister who abused his government positions. The people of Lebanon deserve better.— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) November 6, 2020
The United States has been sanctioning Hezbollah officials for years, and recently began targeting politicians close to the group. In September, the Treasury imposed sanctions on two former Lebanese Cabinet ministers allied with the group in a strong message to Hezbollah and its allies who control majority seats in Parliament.
Friday's announcement is a major expansion of the scope of sanctions targeting Hezbollah’s political partners in Lebanon.
“The systemic corruption in Lebanon’s political system exemplified by Bassil has helped to erode the foundation of an effective government that serves the Lebanese people,” said US Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.
Immediately after the designation, Bassil tweeted that the sanctions do not frighten him. “I have gotten used to injustice and learned from our history: It is our fate in this Orient to carry our cross every day ... in order to survive,” he tweeted.
'Last country to speak of fighting corruption'
Hezbollah called it a purely political decision and blatant interference in Lebanese affairs. It said the US, “which supports and sponsors corrupt dictatorial states around the world, is the last country that has the right to speak of fighting corruption.”
The announcement came as the world anxiously awaited the result of US elections and Donald Trump’s pathway to reelection appeared to shrink.
It also comes as Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is struggling to form a new government in Lebanon, which has been hit by the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history. Hariri's government was toppled by the anti-corruption protests in November last year but he has recently been tasked by Aoun to form a new government.
There have been concerns that sanctioning Bassil, a major power broker in Lebanon, would further complicate Hariri's mission.
Bassil has held several high-level posts in the Lebanese government, serving as the minister of telecommunications, energy and water and as foreign minister at various intervals over the past two decades. He also heads the Free Patriotic Movement, the Christian party founded by Aoun, and is a top advisor to the president.
The Treasury designation described him as being “at the forefront of corruption” in Lebanon, accusing him of being involved in approving several projects that would have steered Lebanese government funds to individuals close to him through a group of front companies, while minister of energy in 2014.
Bassil was targeted under the Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress in 2012, initially in response to the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison after exposing a tax fraud scheme involving Russian officials. The law named after him was expanded and allows the US to target any foreigner accused of human rights violations and corruption.
The US sanctions announcement cited Lebanon's ongoing electricity and garbage crises as results of deep corruption in government and said Bassil was "at the forefront" of graft in the country.
But it did not offer any specific details of the allegations.
"In 2017, Bassil strengthened his political base by appointing friends to positions and purchasing other forms of influence within Lebanese political circles," the Treasury said.
"In 2014, while Minister of Energy, Bassil was involved in approving several projects that would have steered Lebanese government funds to individuals close to him through a group of front companies."
"Bassil has repeatedly used his influence to stall government formation efforts, most recently in the current process, which has further delayed any chance of Lebanon pursuing meaningful economic reform," a senior government official said.
"With today's action, we encourage Lebanon to form a government that excludes politicians known to have engaged in corruption and to pursue meaningful economic reform."
However, the official insisted that the action on Friday had "nothing to do" with the US election or attempts to form a government in Lebanon.
Friday's sanctions announcement seeks to freeze any of Bassil's assets under US jurisdiction and prevent him from accessing the global financial system.
It came as the United States, as well as former colonial power France, press for a new government in Lebanon to push urgent reforms.
But while France regards Hezbollah pragmatically, recognising its constituency among Shia in Lebanon, Washington has stepped up its campaign against the movement violently opposed to Israel.