SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) – A fugitive bank executive wanted for questioning in the U.N. probe of the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was arrested in Brazil after she attempted to buy her freedom with a US$200,000 (¤168,000) bribe, authorities said.
Rana Abdel Rahim Koleilat, 39, is wanted in Lebanon for fraud involving a bank collapse that was Lebanon’s largest financial scandal since the country’s 1975-90 civil war, the Lebanese consul general in Sao Paulo said.
She is also being sought for questioning by the U.N.’s Independent International Investigation Commission, which is probing the truck bombing that killed Hariri and 20 other people in downtown Beirut last year, consul general Joseph Sayah said.
“It’s vital that Miss Koleilat submit herself before the U.N. commission for questioning,” Sayah said in a statement to investigators that Brazilian police showed to reporters Monday.
Sayah did not say why it was important for the panel to question Koleilat but Branco said Brazilian authorities were told investigators want to know whether funds allegedly diverted from the bank where she worked were used to finance the killing of Hariri. U.N. officials had no immediate comment.
Police inspector Nicanor Nogueira Branco said police acting on an anonymous tip found Koleilat Sunday in a hotel apartment on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city.
Koleilat offered officers up to US$200,000 (¤168,000) to release her and was arrested on a charge of attempted bribery, Branco said. Lebanese consular officials spent hours Monday inside the police station where Koleilat was being held, but declined to speak with journalists.
Koleilat made headlines in Lebanon and Europe for years in connection with questions about her role in the disappearance of US$300 million (¤250 million) from the private al-Medina Bank where she worked. Sayah told Brazilian authorities the amount of missing money could total as much as US$1.2 billion (¤1.0 billion), Branco said.
U.S. News & World Report reported last year that the bank allegedly funneled money to Syrian and Lebanese officials, laundered funds for Iraq’s Central Bank when Saddam Hussein was in power and funded Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist organization. Her lawyer told the magazine she denied any wrongdoing.
Koleilat rose from clerk to supervisor of accounts in 12 years at the bank. After the scandal broke in 2003, Koleilat was jailed several times on different charges but was released on bail in 2005 and disappeared. In Brazil, she was carrying a British passport identifying her as Rana Klailat, which showed she had traveled to
China, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey, Branco said. She visited Brazil three times over the last year or so, he said. Sao Paulo, a city of 18 million residents, is home to a large community of Brazilians of Lebanese descent. Hariri’s son, Saad Rafik Hariri, visited Brazil last year and asked Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for help investigating suspected Syrian involvement in his father’s death.
Brazilian authorities were consulting with British officials to determine whether Koleilat’s passport was legitimate or forged, Branco said. British officials in Brazil had no immediate comment.
Interpol asked Brazilian police on Dec. 3 to try to find Koleilat, but no arrest warrant was issued, Branco said. Branco said Koleilat spoke fluent French, English and Arabic but very poor Portuguese, the Brazilian language. Authorities did not let her speak with reporters, though she was visited Sunday by a lawyer that Branco did not identify.
He said police seized about US$7,000 (¤5,900) and took her mobile telephone to try to trace her calls. Branco said he didn’t know if Koleilat would be extradited or prosecuted first in Brazil on the bribery accusation. She was arrested for attempted corruption and faces up to eight years in prison if convicted.