Lebanese banks have paid the government’s $32 million share of the costs of a U.N.-backed court investigating the killing of statesman Rafik al-Hariri, in a bid to ease bitter tensions over the tribunal’s funding.
Bowing to international pressure, the Lebanese government paid for its share of the court costs in November despite objections by the powerful political party and militant group Hezbollah, which does not recognize the court.
The tribunal has indicted four members of Hezbollah.
Tensions almost brought down the government, with Prime Minister Najib Mikati threatening to resign unless Lebanon paid its share of funding.
Banks said on Thursday they wanted to cool any lingering political tensions and protect Lebanon's economy and financial stability.
“This is important for the financial and business environment in Lebanon. Both encourage investment and employment, which are the basis of social stability and economic growth,” the Association of Banks in Lebanon said.
Lebanon’s economy has already taken a hit with growth slowing to 2 percent when political tensions over the court toppled the previous government in January.
Lebanese banks, a main pillar of the country’s economy, stand to suffer the most from any blow to stability, already threatened by unrest across the border as Syria struggles to crush anti-government revolt.
The banks’ payment covers all of the government’s contribution to the court, made through a state relief agency. The banks’ role in funding the relief agency had been kept secret until the payment was announced on Thursday.
“The executive board did this based on its conviction of the necessity of protecting depositors' funds and strengthening internal political stability,” the banks’ association said in a statement.
Hezbollah, a group backed by Iran and Syria, has denied any responsibility in the 2005 bombing that killed Hariri. It rejects the Netherlands-based tribunal, saying it is politically motivated, “conspiratorial,” and biased towards U.S. and Israeli interests.
In November, politicians announced a deal to fund the court without having to take the decision to the cabinet, where Hezbollah and its allies have blocking power with half the posts.
The deal said Lebanon would raise funding through the government relief agency, a political source Reuters, but with a tacit understanding that bankers would foot the bill.
“This was a part of the deal not announced at the time,” the official said. “We worked on the basis that the funds would come from bank grants or donations.”