'Lebanese Madoff' charged with fraud

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Financier Salah Ezzedine, dubbed "Lebanon's Bernard Madoff" by the Beirut press over allegations he squandered more than one billion dollars of his clients' money, has been charged with embezzlement and fraud, state media reported on Sunday.Ezzedine's business partner, Yussef Faour, the deputy mayor of the southern village of Maaroub, was charged with the same offences on Saturday, the official National News Agency reported.

Ezzedine turned himself in earlier this month after filing for bankruptcy. Faour was arrested days afterwards.

A Shiite Muslim from the southern town of Toura, Ezzedine reportedly handled the investments of thousands of clients from Lebanon's Shiite community.

"He managed to win the trust of the Shiites of south Lebanon and handled a lot of their money," Toura mayor Mohammed al-Duheini told AFP earlier this month.

Born in 1962, the financier first went into business organising pilgrimages to the Muslim holy places in Saudi Arabia.

He also operated a publishing house in the mainly Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut named after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's late son Hadi. It has since been shut down by the authorities.

While Ezzedine's own political beliefs remain unclear, Beirut newspapers have reported that many of his clients were members of the Shiite militant group, which fought a devastating 2006 war with Israel.

In a speech earlier this month, Nasrallah himself denied that Ezzedine had any ties to the party. But reports say Hezbollah MP Hussein Hajj Hassan has filed a complaint over a bounced cheque signed by Ezzedine.

Under Lebanon's banking secrecy law, banks cannot reveal their clients' names, assets or holdings except in cases of bankruptcy or if granted written authorisation by the client.

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