Mr Youssef, where is our pounds 100m?

Frontline BEIRUT
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The Independent Online
HAVE YOU heard the one about the former Lebanese communications ministry official who went to sea disguised as a Sudanese with half a Lebanese 1,000-pound note hidden in his portable telephone? Yes, it's another sensational tale from the annals of Lebanon's ferocious anti-corruption drive.

And now for the sum the seafaring Abdel-Menem Youssef, the former director general for investment at the national telephone company, is accused of misappropriating; wait for it...

A mere $166m, a little over pounds 100m. Word in Lebanon is that whoever made off with this trifling sum - for Mr Youssef remains unconvicted though very much behind bars - the money long ago left these shores. Unlike the man who is now the talk of all Lebanon. Mr Youssef had already made six Beirut court appearances in the past two months over the disappearance of huge amounts of money, made - so it was alleged by government prosecutors - through a judicious mixture of unpaid international telephone bills, unauthorised contracts with an American and Canadian telephone company and the rental of luxury cars for non-business purposes. The authorities ordered Mr Youssef not to leave Lebanon and, just for good measure, took away his passport.

Roll on then to last Sunday evening when the Lebanese constabulary discovered Mr Youssef's car parked on a coast road not far from the northern city of Tripoli. This may not be Scotland Yard country but Lebanese policeare no fools and they quickly divined that the accused may have put to sea. Indeed, a Pakistan-registered cargo ship had just lifted anchor in the local port when coastguards descended on the vessel.

Aboard were four Sudanese, possible illegal immigrants, and the luckless Mr Youssef with his face painted black to look like his fellow Sudanese, a suitcase containing $1,410 and a mobile phone with half of a Lebanese 1,000-pound note (worth about 50 pence) hidden inside it - to be used, according to police, to identify himself to smugglers in Cyprus who were due to send him on to Paris. Mr Youssef told police that he just "happened to be on a sea cruise" - all this, remember, at night on a Pakistani cargo ship - then said that his escapade was due to "stress and psychological tension". This was not an excuse that Colonel Samir Rahme, head of Lebanon's central criminal brigade, was prepared to accept. Next morning, Mrs Rabiha Kaddoura, the assistant public prosecutor, had him locked up. At almost the same time as his attempted flight, other members of the Youssef family turned up at Beirut airport to take a flight to Paris - a trip they cancelled once they heard of Mr Youssef's arrest.

Lebanon's anti-corruption campaign, set in motion by the President, ex- General Emile Lahoud, has focused on dozens of officials in the former government of Rafiq Hariri. Among those residing in the confines of Roumieh prison is the ex-mayor of Beirut. Mr Youssef is languishing in more salubrious accommodation in the law court prison in Beirut.

Robert Fisk