PA tries to stop officials from fleeing

Senior PA officials may have stolen billions of dollars in public funds.

abbas voting 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
abbas voting 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Several top Palestinian Authority officials have fled the West Bank and Gaza Strip since Hamas scored a landslide victory in the January 25 parliamentary election, PA security sources revealed on Sunday. In its election platform, Hamas promised to wage a campaign against corruption in the PA and to punish all those involved. Palestinians estimate that over $1.5 billion have gone missing since the signing of the Oslo Accords. The sources told The Jerusalem Post that the PA was planning to seek Interpol's assistance in tracking down and arresting the officials, who are suspected of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds. One of the suspects is Sami Ramlawi, former director-general of the PA's Finance Ministry, who is believed to be living in Jordan. The sources denied reports that Ramlawi was detained over the weekend as he tried to cross into Jordan through Allenby Bridge with a suitcase containing $20 million. The reports, which first appeared on a number of Palestinian Web sites, claimed that the money had been hidden in a diplomatic suitcase. According to the reports, Ramlawi's wife was also arrested when she tried to cross in to Egypt through the Rafah terminal. "Sami Ramlawi is suspected of financial corruption," the sources said. "He fled to Jordan about two years ago and since then he has been wanted by the Palestinian Authority for embezzlement of millions of dollars." At least six top officials traveled abroad since the results of the election were announced. Many Palestinians believe the six fled the country out of fear that they would be put on trial for stealing public funds. Harbi Sarsour, head of the PA's Petroleum Authority, was arrested recently by the PA security forces on suspicion of embezzlement and mismanagement. Sarsour, who was closely associated with Yasser Arafat, established together with senior PA officials a monopoly over all the gasoline and fuel-oil products in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. After Arafat's death, the PA froze Sarsour's bank accounts pending an investigation into the sources of his income. Sarsour is now threatening to implicate many top officials if the PA does not release him. His friends told the Post that many former security commanders and Arafat loyalists were on his payroll for many years. PA Attorney-General Ahmed al-Mughni disclosed on Sunday that his office was investigating more than 50 cases related to financial corruption. He said PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas ordered the investigation shortly after he was elected in January 2005. Mughni said a number of officials had been arrested, but refused to elaborate. He also said that some of the suspects, including top PA officials, would soon be brought to trial. One of the cases that are under investigation is known as the "Cement Scandal." The affair began nearly three years ago when Egypt offered to sell the PA some 420,000 tons of high-quality cement at extremely low prices to help boost the Palestinian economy. The cement was to be used in rebuilding dilapidated Palestinian houses and buildings destroyed by the IDF, particularly in the Gaza Strip. However, some top PA officials quickly obtained a license to import the cement from the PA Ministry of Economy. Most of the cement was then sold to Israel with the knowledge of Arafat's senior aides. Palestinian legislators claimed that the cement was used by Israel to construct the security fence in the West Bank. Others accused PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei of involvement in the scandal, pointing out that a cement factory owned by his family in Abu Dis was also providing concrete to Israeli companies. "We are now trying to prevent suspects from fleeing the country," Mughni said. "There will be no immunity for anyone involved in financial corruption."