Scandal-Scarred Middle Eastern Bank Loses Case

FBME, the rogue Middle Eastern bank that wouldn’t die, has been dealt what is seemingly yet another final blow with a decision by a tribunal of the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce, to reject a US$1.4 billion arbitration claim brought by Lebanese brothers Ayoub-Farid and Fadi Saab that the island nation of Cyprus had wrongly expropriated their assets.

In response, the Saab brothers issued a statement saying they are “disappointed by the ICC decision and stand by our case against the Republic and are examining potential recourses.”

The Saab brothers and Fadi’s son Michel Norbert Saab, have been fighting to keep control of FBME since the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN ordered it shut down in 2014. The Cyprus unit of the Tanzania-based bank has been described as one of the most infamous money-laundering operations in the world, with depositors allegedly including Russian Mafia suspects, central African satraps, pornographers., internet scam artists and a long list of other outlaws.

Money alleged to have been siphoned out of Hermitage Capital, the Moscow-based investment concern headed by William Browder, was said to have been directed into FBME, making it a player in one of the world’s most infamous financial scandals.

Sergei Magnitsky, an associate of Browder’s, was said to have been beaten to death in a Moscow jail when he tried to investigate the theft of Browder’s funds. Browder was forced to leave Russia. Eventually, the US Congress passed the Magnitsky Act banning a list of Russian individuals believed complicit in the killing from using the US financial system to move funds around the world, in effect freezing them.

President Vladimir Putin, believed to be close to the banned individuals, has worked to get the Magnitsky Act repealed. The matter is believed to have played a role in Russian attempts to destabilize the US 2016 election.

FBME’s Cyprus unit has been the subject of a series of stories by Asia Sentinel that described the alleged laundering of millions of US dollars out of the Indonesia-based Bank Mutiara, formerly known as Bank Century, which was looted by its owner, Robert Tantular and others, during the global financial crisis of 2008. Some of those funds are suspected of having found their way back to the Saabs as evidenced in money laundering testimony referred as the Peter Barrie Brown report, an exhaustive look at FBME’s money-moving activities. Bank Mutiara was later taken over by the Tokyo-based J Trust financial conglomerate, which is now struggling to stay afloat financially.

In April 2017, after a three-year court battle, US District Court Judge Christopher Cooper granted a motion by FinCEN to bar FBME Bank from US operations, affirming a March 2016 final ruling against FBME. That in effect put the bank out of business, since it barred it from use of the US SWIFT system (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) through which most of the world’s financial transactions travel, or from using US dollars. It also prohibited domestic financial institutions from opening or maintaining correspondent bank accounts on behalf of FBME.

The Saabs continued to fight through the international tribunal in Paris. The award by the tribunal was issued on Jan. 15 and sent to the parties on Jan. 29 but hasn’t been made public.

The Saabs "aggressively litigated their claims in seeking an immense amount of damages, but the award confirms that Cyprus met its treaty obligations, with the Central Bank of Cyprus acting properly in responding to FBME’s failure," a spokesman for Cyprus’s central bank said.

The central bank assumed control of the Cyprus branch after FinCEN designated it a foreign financial institution of “primary money laundering concern." FinCEN then prohibited US financial institutions transacting any business with the bank,only to have FBME sue in other courts.

The Saabs sought arbitration later that year, alleging the CBC had violated a bilateral investment treaty between Cyprus and Lebanon by taking control.