Efforts to Curb Corruption Under Scrutiny

Prime minister’s removal of customs chief accused of corruption doesn’t appear to inspire confidence.

Efforts to Curb Corruption Under Scrutiny

Prime minister’s removal of customs chief accused of corruption doesn’t appear to inspire confidence.

Monday, 16 March, 2009
The recent dismissal of a high-ranking official accused of embezzlement is seen by many as a token move by authorities reluctant to seriously address corruption.

Last month, Prime Minister Naji al-Otari sacked the head of customs Brigadier General Hassan Makhlouf after it emerged that he had been the subject of a graft probe.

But some analysts argue that in removing the official, the authorities have merely scratched the surface of the much wider problem of corruption at the highest levels of government.

After Makhlouf was dismissed, the official newspaper al-Thawra reported that the authorities had seized all his financial assets and those of his family, including 137 properties all over Syria.

The possessions of ten other customs employees were also expropriated, according to the daily.

There has been little official comment on the case.

In recent weeks, the government had indicated its desire to stamp out crooked practices. During a conference in Damascus in February, Haytham Satayhi, an official from the ruling Ba’ath party, said the country’s leaders were serious about fighting corruption.

But a Damascus-based economist, who preferred not to be named, argued that Makhlouf had been made a scapegoat, like other officials before him.

According to the economist, the likes of Maklouf work as “agents” for powerful government officials who ultimately reap most of the benefits from the misuse of public funds.

“From time to time, when these employees become too exposed, they are removed from the game and replaced,” he said.

Damascus-based lawyer Michel Shammas said the authorities had been monitoring Makhlouf for more than a year before deciding to expose his alleged involvement in corruption.

About a year and a half ago, an official investigator assigned to look into customs records uncovered evidence that officers there were implicated in bribery and embezzlement of public funds, he explained.

The investigator was attacked in the state-run media and soon taken off the case, said Shammas. A finance ministry committee was then put in charge of scrutinising the inspector’s allegations, he added.

By sacrificing Makhlouf, he said, the government was looking to gain public confidence by trying show that it was serious about rooting out corruption.

Some have suggested that the authorities’ latest pronouncements and actions on graft might be linked to efforts to woo the European Union.

Syria is pursuing a raft of reforms in several areas because it is eager to sign an association agreement with the EU, pointed out a political analyst, who also asked to remain anonymous.

Technical negotiations on the accord between the EU and Syria were carried out in October 2004.

Under the deal, Damascus will benefit from trade and investment, if it pushes forward on economic, social and democratic reforms.

However, the EU appears to have concluded that there’s not been sufficient progress.

While the government promised to carry out public sector reforms at a national Ba’ath party conference in June 2005, little has been done since then.

The Italian news agency, AKI, reported last month that a special committee of experts would soon be formed to advise the authorities on political and economic reforms.

However, some experts remain sceptical about the government’s willingness to eradicate corruption, and implement wider reform.

“Reform starts with punishing corrupt people,” said the economist.

Many ordinary Syrians agree. “It’s all about replacing one thief with another thief,” said a Damascus trader, expressing a widely-held view.

“It is impossible to get any document processed at customs without paying a bribe.”
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