(photo credit: AP [file])
A Lebanese prosecutor on Saturday formally charged a prominent Shi'ite businessman linked to Hizbullah with fraudulent embezzlement, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison, a court official said.
The businessman, Salah Ezzedine, is suspected of depriving investors of hundreds of millions of dollars. He turned himself in to authorities last month after declaring bankruptcy and has since been held in custody.
Ezzedine is suspected of creating a Ponzi scheme that promised investors returns of up to 40 percent a year. The case has drawn comparisons in Lebanon with that of Bernard Madoff.
On Saturday, acting financial prosecutor Fawzi Adham charged Ezzedine and a partner, Youssef Faour, with fraudulent embezzlement, issuing bad checks and violating the Lebanese monetary and loan laws. The crimes are punishable with prison terms of three to 15 years, the court official said.
Five others have also been charged with involvement in the case, but are on the run, the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Ezzedine and Faour have been referred to an investigating magistrate for further investigation before a date is set for their trial.
Ezzedine, a wealthy businessman from the town of Maaroub near the southern port city of Tyre, is a prominent financier, particularly among Shiite circles in Lebanon. He is the owner of Dar Al-Hadi Publishing House, which has published religious Shi'ite books, including books by Hizbullah officials.
The allegations have tarnished a reputation Ezzedine had as a pious man involved in charity work. He headed an institution that organized pilgrimage trips to Muslims holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Recent media reports in Lebanon have alleged that Hizbullah has had business dealings with Ezzedine, somewhat shaking the Shi'ite group's image as an austere resistance movement. Hezbollah, however, has denied any involvement in Ezzedine's business dealings.
Many Muslims consider interest paid by banks as un-Islamic and therefore prefer to invest their money in businesses such as the ones run by Ezzeddine.