At about 7am on a June day last year, veteran banker Antoine Dagher left home for one of Lebanon’s biggest banks, his employer for the past 20 years. But the head of Byblos Bank’s ethics and anti-fraud department never arrived.
A few hours later, Dagher’s wife found his body on the ground by his grey Honda near their home in Hazmiyeh, an exclusive suburb minutes from downtown Beirut. He had been stabbed five times.
A year on, the unsolved murder of the father of two hangs over Lebanon’s once prestigious banking industry. In a police report seen by the Financial Times, investigators said nothing had been stolen, but identified no motive and have charged no one.
With no clear answers available, many bankers have drawn what they see as an inevitable conclusion: his murder relates to his work. Lebanon’s banks are under attack from protesters angry at their role in the country’s financial crisis and from customers unable to withdraw their cash. “It was terrifying and shocking,” said one of Dagher’s former colleagues. “And until now, we don’t understand anything.”
Before running the bank’s ethics and anti-fraud department, Dagher was head of Byblos Bank’s compliance unit for a decade.
The job of compliance bankers is to ensure their employers abide by local and international rules on money laundering and terror financing. In Lebanon, “compliance is a risky business, if you do it properly”, said one former regulator. The stakes are high: “You have Hizbollah [a paramilitary and political party designated a terrorist organisation by the US], you have [politicians and their families], and you have corrupt banks’ management.”
An already difficult job has been complicated by the country’s financial crisis, which erupted amid mass protests and a two-week banking shutdown in October 2019. Lebanon’s problems, worsened by the pandemic and a massive explosion at the port in Beirut last year, have their roots in decades of state mismanagement and political corruption.
About 40 banks serve Lebanon’s 7m residents and many of them had invested heavily in government debt as well as the central bank. About 70 per cent of total banking assets are exposed to the Lebanese sovereign, according to the World Bank. The state defaulted on its debt last year and banks have since been forced to sell overseas 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 largely shifted to cash. “It’s not normal banking,” said a senior banker. “We’re dealing with crisis and craziness.” The sector’s reputation has been ruined. “A Lebanese banker was a precious commodity,” the senior banker said, citing the financiers’ successes at top banks abroad. But two years into the meltdown, now “your name is trash”.
Disillusionment within Lebanon’s banking sector is common. While there is no law on capital controls, individual banks have severely limited withdrawals and transfers. The client-facing banker said they have to reject what they consider valid requests to access funds, such as medical bills, while delivering some services, such as new accounts or withdrawals, only for VIP clients or bank managers.
With financiers vilified for their role in the crisis, and depositors cut off from their money, enraged clients and protesters have torched bank branches and abused staff. The client-facing banker said customers have pulled guns on managers, demanding to withdraw their own cash.
Their work is now “very dirty”, the client-facing banker said. But employees have no choice in order to keep their job and preserve their safety: “We are afraid, we are living in a country where there is no security, they can kill us.”
Their fear stems from Lebanon’s culture of impunity. Dagher’s murder is not unique in remaining unsolved. Dozens of political assassinations have gone unpunished in recent years. “The judiciary and security forces’ inability to solve murders . . . has really led to the public losing faith in [their] ability . . . to protect them,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Pressure has also come from outside Lebanon. More banks were sanctioned in the run-up to the crisis. In 2019, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on the Jammal Trust Bank for allegedly helping Hizbollah — it is now in liquidation. Lebanon’s central bank governor is the subject of two European money-laundering and embezzlement investigations. He denies wrongdoing.
A severe dollar shortage has made it easier for criminals to launder money through banks, desperate for cash. “It is very hard to trace and verify the real source” of cash, a compliance specialist said. Since the crisis began, “compliance is not first priority, surviving is first priority”, the specialist said.
Byblos Bank said it had co-operated with the official investigation into Dagher’s death, but declined to answer other questions. Four bankers said Dagher was popular, known for decency and diligence. “He was the most ethical person at the bank,” said a former colleague, adding: “If he could see what is happening now [in the sector], I’m sure he would have resigned.”
Dagher “was everybody’s favourite”, said his daughter, Michèle. But Elie, his son, added: “We never realised how dangerous his job is.”