Examiner Staff

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BankMed confirms strong growth in 2013

BEIRUT: BankMed maintained double-digit growth in deposits and total assets in 2013 despite an overall economic slowdown that saw net profit almost flatten due to the conservative management strategy of allocating an additional $35 million in general provisions.

Customer deposits increased by 12 percent to reach $10.3 billion at of the end of December 2013, and the customer loan portfolio expanded by 7 percent to $4.3 billion, while consolidated net profit grew year on year by 1 percent to $128.1 million.

In line with its conservative management strategy, BankMed decided to increase its general provisions by $35 million to $140 million rather than post higher profits, a BankMed statement said.

The loan loss provision coverage ratio stood at 203 percent.

“Despite tough economic conditions and a year that witnessed numerous challenges, the bank maintained healthy activities in 2013 that resulted in continued growth in deposits and assets,” the statement added.

By the end of December 2013, BankMed’s total assets posted a 10 percent growth to hit $13.8 billion.

The bank invested around $679 million of its balance sheet growth in 2013 in liquid assets including cash and deposits in the Central Bank and commercial financial establishments and $422 million in marketable securities such as treasury bills, while granting around $282 million in loans.

BankMed is committed to its long-time policy of maintaining high liquidity ratio, the statement said. BankMed’s foreign currency liquidity ratio stood at 40.6 percent compared to the Central Bank limit of 10 percent. The bank’s capital adequacy ratio reached 13.8 percent by the end of 2013 compared to the 10.5 percent required by the Central Bank.

International rating agency Moody’s recently reiterated its negative outlook for Lebanon’s sovereign rating and warned that banks’ profitability would remain under pressure owing to slow economic growth.

Moody’s said the outlook reflected banks’ increasing exposure to B1-rated Lebanese government securities, which leaves their modest capital buffers susceptible to sovereign event risk.

The majority of Lebanese banks are rolling over their maturing treasury bonds but have been cautious to buy new issues of government debt.

Pressure arising from banks’ operations in regional countries hit by turmoil was also among the issues highlighted in Moody’s report.

However, despite the political concerns in Turkey, the operations of BankMed’s Turkish subsidiary (T-Bank) were not affected, and its assets grew by 39 percent during 2013, according to the statement.

Turkey’s central bank hiked all its key interest rates last February in a bid to defend the country’s crumbling currency.

According to Moody’s, the sharp interest rate hike will squeeze the profitability of the banking sector through higher funding costs and hurt the quality of bank assets.

BankMed’s statement downplayed the impact of the rate hike in Turkey on its operations, saying the current circumstances were the result of a political spillover into the economy rather than vice versa.

BankMed, which was the first Lebanese bank to expand to Turkey in 2007, has more than 29 branches in the country.

BankMed posted an 8 percent growth in profits in 2012 as well as 16 percent growth in deposits and 15 percent growth in loans.
The Daily Star

Obamacare sign-ups hit seven million target: White House

WASHINGTON: The White House said Tuesday it had reached its target of signing up seven million people to new insurance plans under President Barack Obama’s health care law.

“I think it is fair to say we surpassed everybody’s expectations,” spokesman Jay Carney said, noting that 7,041,000 people had signed up before a midnight deadline.

Carney said more than 200,000 people signed up on Monday on a federal website, and the number was expected to rise as data came in from the states.

Obama was due to speak on the issue at 4:15 pm (2015 GMT).

The scramble to sign up for insurance plans at the end of a six-month enrollment window caused website glitches and long lines at on-the-spot enrollment centers.

Senior White House officials saw the deadline day rush as vindication after the disastrous rollout of the federal health care website — HealthCare.gov — late last year.

The law demands that all Americans have health insurance or pay a fine, but offers subsidies for the less well-off.

Republicans have renewed a vow to repeal the law, which they say costs jobs, handcuffs small businesses and represents a government power grab in the private health care market.

AFP

Parliament Adopts Domestic Violence Law, Activists Criticize it

A controversial draft-law on domestic violence was approved by the parliament on Tuesday, although it did not meet the expectations of activists supporting the cause.

The draft-law on the protection of women against domestic violence was one of the 70 items on the agenda of a three-day parliamentary session.

Change and Reform MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who played a key role in lobbying for the law, told Agence France Presse: “It is a big step forward in protecting women, we should be proud.”

“We now have a law that provides effective protection for women …

“It’s not the ideal text, but it’s a first step,” Moukheiber said, while stressing that the law must now be enforced.

 

Earlier, KAFA, a non-governmental organization that supports non-discrimination, gender equality, and women’s rights within the Lebanese society, held a protest near the building of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in downtown Beirut to press MPs to adopt the draft-law with amendments introduced to it.

The protesters chanted slogans against domestic violence and held banners calling for the non-adoption of a “distorted law.”

But a KAFA spokesperson told TV stations that the NGO was not satisfied with the law.

KAFA was calling for parliament’s approval of amendments introduced to it. But MPs adopted the proposed draft-law without changes.

“This is not an achievement for the Lebanese woman because it does not guarantee her full protection,” Maya Ammar, the spokeswoman, said.

Layla Awada, a lawyer from KAFA, called the adoption of the law a “farce.”

Speaker Nabih Berri did not allow any MP to make remarks at the legislative session in collaboration with the lawmakers, she said.

“This is a punishment,” she added.

Awada promised to propose amendments to the law and work on putting it back on parliament’s agenda.

Meanwhile, for the NGO’s Faten Abu Shakra, who led the campaign, the law “does not specifically focus on women.”

She opposed the introduction “by religious men of religious language” into the bill, which fails to specifically refer to marital rape as a crime.

It criminalizes causing “harm”, including “beatings” and “threats”, to obtain sex, but the term “conjugal right” is used without mention of consent.

Moukheiber said the term aimed to appease Lebanon’s powerful clerics, who had been opposed to the bill outright.

According to Rothna Begum of Human Rights Watch, the law is “a positive step forward in ensuring protection for women from domestic violence.”

She told AFP: “It includes positive steps such as providing for restraining orders against abusers; temporary accommodation for the survivors of abuse.”

The law also “assigns a public prosecutor in each of Lebanon’s six governorates to receive complaints and investigate cases of violence; and establishes specialized family violence units within Lebanon’s domestic police to process complaints.”

But “parliament should seek to urgently reform this new law if it is to ensure women full protection from domestic violence including criminalizing marital rape.”

The law passed after a KAFA-led campaign which saw thousands of demonstrators take to the streets of Beirut on March 8, International Women’s Day.

Several Lebanese women have been killed in recent domestic violence cases which have led to a large-scale condemnation on social media.

The Lebanese Forces parliamentary bloc later issued a statement voicing some reservations over the approval of the draft-law, suggesting the inclusion of a few amendments.

It said that the name of the law should be stated as the protection of women from domestic violence, seeing as the draft-law was initially written with the goal of protecting women.

“Any change in the title would make it seem as the law was aimed at protecting the family from domestic violence, which consequently ignores the bitter reality” that women are facing, it remarked in a statement.

In addition, it said that women subject to domestic violence should be able to resort to the General Prosecution or police stations should they seek to report a case.

The General Prosecution is the quickest and least costly resort for the women, explained the LF bloc.

It also addressed the case of marital rape, stressing the need to designate such incidents as crimes, not giving them legal descriptions that apply to laws on beatings and threats.

It therefore demanded the rephrasing of the draft-law’s article on cases of marital rape.

The bloc rejected the use of “the term ‘fulfilling marital sexual rights’ because obtaining such rights through violence, threats, or deception is a form of rape and a violation of human dignity.”

It criticized how the draft-law did not explicitly mention marital rape, saying that the current phrasing “only emphasizes such acts and justifies violence in marriage.”

 

Naharnet

NATO orders end to cooperation with Russia

BRUSSELS: NATO’s foreign ministers ordered an end to civilian and military cooperation with Russia on Tuesday and told their generals and admirals to quickly figure out ways to better protect alliance members that feel threatened by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

The 28-member alliance, the keystone of U.S. and European security since the end of World War II, was reacting to its most serious crisis in years: Russia’s unilateral annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which the U.S. and its allies have condemned as an illegal land grab.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the other ministers, meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels behind closed doors, unanimously agreed Tuesday on a number of measures. A civilian NATO official who attended the meeting and briefed reporters afterward on condition of anonymity said the steps included:

– The suspension of “all practical civilian and military cooperation” between NATO and Russia. NATO officials said ambassadorial-level contacts will remain open to assure a reliable channel of communication.

– The possible deployment and reinforcement of military assets in eastern NATO members, such as Poland and the Baltic states, that feel menaced by Moscow’s latest actions.

A possible increase of readiness levels for the NATO rapid response force.

A possible review of NATO’s crisis response plans, as well as its military training and exercise schedules.

NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Phil Breedlove and his subordinates will draw up the proposals within a few weeks and then submit them to political leaders for their approval, the NATO official said.

To reassure alliance members closest to Russia and Ukraine, NATO already has stepped up air patrols over the Baltic Sea and AWACS surveillance flights over Poland and Romania.

Prior to the meeting, the chief of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization downplayed reports of a Russian troop withdrawal from areas along its border with Ukraine. Russia’s Defense Ministry on Monday said one battalion – about 500 troops – had pulled back.

“This is not what we have seen,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters Tuesday. “And this massive military buildup can in no way contribute to a de-escalation of the situation – a de-escalation that we all want to see – so I continue to urge Russia to pull back its troops, live up to its international obligation and engage in a constructive dialogue with Ukraine.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking to reporters in Berlin, echoed those comments.

“(Even if some troops left) it’s certainly not the final step,” she said. “The (Russian) troop concentration on the Ukrainian border is very high.”

An estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Russian troops equipped with tanks, other armored vehicles and fixed and rotary wing aircraft remained positioned near the border with Ukraine, a NATO military official told The Associated Press on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.

The official described the Russian buildup as “a complete combat force” that was highly threatening to Ukraine.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, who was meeting with his NATO counterparts, planned to speak to reporters later in the day.

In other developments, Russia sharply hiked the price for natural gas to Ukraine and threatened to reclaim billions in previous discounts, raising the heat on Ukraine’s cash-strapped government. In Kiev, Ukrainian police moved to disarm members of a radical nationalist group after a shooting spree in the capital.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier renewed a push for internationally backed direct talks between Russia and Ukraine.

“What will be important in the coming days is getting Russia and Ukraine around a table together,” Steinmeier said at a meeting with his French and Polish counterparts in Weimar, Germany, before heading to Brussels.

Despite annexing Crimea, Putin and other Kremlin officials have said that Russia has no intention of invading other areas of Ukraine. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu insisted Tuesday the Kremlin wants a “political settlement that would take interests and rights of the entire Ukrainian people into account.”

Alexei Miller, the head of Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom natural gas giant, said the company has withdrawn December’s discount that put the price of gas at $268.50 per 1,000 cubic meters and set the price Tuesday at $385.50 per 1,000 cubic meters for the second quarter.

The move is expected to eventually hit Ukrainian consumers hard. Household gas prices in Ukraine are set to rise 50 percent beginning May 1.

The Russian discount was part of a financial lifeline that Putin offered Ukraine’s previous president, Viktor Yanukovych, after his decision to ditch a pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow.

The move fueled three months of protests that sent Yanukovych fleeing to Russia in February.

Also Tuesday, the Russian parliament annulled its deal with Ukraine to rent its Black Sea Fleet’s base in Crimea until 2042 for $98 million a year and discounts for Russian natural gas.

Radical nationalist groups played a key role in Yanukovych’s ouster, but quickly fell out with the new government in Kiev. Many activists are still encamped on Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, and have signaled their intent to remain until the May 25 presidential election.

Last week, one of the leaders of the most prominent radical group, the Right Sector, was shot dead while resisting police. Right Sector members then besieged parliament for hours, demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. They lifted the blockade after lawmakers set up a panel to investigate the killing.

Late Monday, a Right Sector member shot and wounded three people outside a restaurant adjacent to Independence Square, triggering a standoff that lasted overnight.

Police responded by surrounding the Dnipro Hotel, which Right Sector had commandeered as its headquarters, demanding that the radicals lay down their weapons and leave. Avakov said Right Sector members agreed Tuesday to do so.

The Ukrainian parliament then voted to order police to disarm all illegal armed units. Backers said the move was needed to combat a surge in violent crime and to defuse the risk of provocations by “foreign citizens” in Ukraine’s southern and eastern Russian-speaking regions, where some anti-government groups have rallied for secession.

If police disarm nationalists and other radicals, it would undermine Russia’s allegation that the new Ukrainian government was kowtowing to those groups.
The Daily Star

Natural choice: Lebanese design honored

BEIRUT: Lebanese designer Nathalie Trad wore a giant stone to the 2014 Grazia Style Awards. But the gem wasn’t on one of her fingers; it was clutched in her hands.

Creations such as that bag, which looked like a piece of volcanic rock sitting on the designer’s lap, won her and her small team one of the most sought-after awards in Dubai’s blossoming design world. Grazia Magazine named Trad “2014’s Best Regional Accessories Designer.”

Shortlisted for the award with two established brands, Poupee Couture and Baraboux, Trad told The Daily Star several days later that her win was unexpected: “It was definitely a surprise.”

Born in Beirut but raised in Dubai, Trad, 27, opened her self-titled accessories brand one year ago exactly, launching a collection modeled after the minutia found in nature. The designs on her bag that night, for example, drew inspiration from the black spots that cover the wings of a Polygonia butterfly.

The Grazia Style award wrapped up the designer’s inaugural year on a high note after a whirlwind of success these past 12 months.

Last April, the brand debuted a collection encompassing leather goods, statement necklaces and solid, abstract clutch purses. It was the latter, part of her “Shell” line and made from unusual materials like resin, mother of pearl and stainless steel, that caught the attention of regional boutique curators such as Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, co-founder and director of D’NA boutique and magazine.

Today, Trad sells her clutches throughout the Middle East and in shops from the United States to India.

“Success is not really about the awards, it’s about being able to sell in New York, in London, in Riyadh, in Tunis, in India, in Beirut,” she said. “It’s because people like Dina from D’NA just believed in me … people like that, who believe in you for your designs and not for who you are or how long you’ve been in the business.”

Trad’s overnight success, so to speak, is unusual, particularly in this region, where support for young designers still leaves a lot to be desired. Her story is an indication that the market may be opening up to local talent, especially in places like Dubai, which is pushing to promote itself as a destination for design.

Dubai is super central. In terms of business, it’s easy to work here, it feels like an international playground.”

“It’s going to give us a playground to be able to play and work together – that’s what’s missing in the Middle East. We don’t interact with each other, push each other, give each other feedback,” Trad said.

Before moving back to Dubai, Trad studied fashion and business, first at ESMOD Paris and then at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City, where she also worked with then-rising designer Proenza Schouler.

Trad got hands-on experience in accessory design at Proenza. “It was in a loft, where everyone worked. There were three, then I was the fourth so it was extremely hands-on. It was very enriching, from understanding what goes into the research, which materials to use and what not to use.”

It was also in New York that Trad came upon her personal design credo: deconstructing forms from nature into avant garde accessories.

“I was at Strand. It’s a bookstore with three floors of used books and books that are out of print. I was looking for something that would spark something in me. At the time, I wasn’t 100 percent sure if I was going to start my own line. I found this book of drawings from the 1800s of insects and nature. I remember opening up the book, and that’s sort of where it started.”

That inspiration provided the basis for the asymmetry, texture and geometry of her off-beat purses. Do her Lebanese roots inspire her work also? “I’m 100 percent Lebanese, so I’m sure it does. It’s in my DNA.”

 

By Beckie Strum

The Daily Star

Cost of phone cards cut in half to help low-income Lebanese

BEIRUT: The Telecommunications Ministry has slashed by up to 50 percent the price of local and international phone calls made through prepaid cards issued by the state-run telecom provider Ogero.

Telecoms Minister Boutros Harb told reporters at a news conference Monday that he would “reduce the price of phone calls made through the prepaid cards Telecarte and Kalam by 50 percent for landline calls and 30 percent for cellular phone calls.”

People using the cards will now pay LL50 instead of LL100 for every minute of call time from a landline and LL100 instead of LL200 from a mobile line.

As for international calls, users will now pay LL300 between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., and LL200 for the rest of the day.

Prices will be adjusted starting April 1 as per Harb’s policy decision, his first since his appointment last month.

“This will facilitate communications and better serve citizens, particularly low-income individuals such as students, workers, and users of public phone booths and domestic workers,” he said.

Harb said the move would boost the prepaid cards market.

“It will also revitalize the process of selling and purchasing these prepaid cards after a three-year freeze in sales, which affected [government] revenues,” he said, noting that the treasury was losing $110 million annually as a result of the decline in the sales of prepaid cards.

The Telecommunications Ministry is also considering how to cut mobile rates without significantly lowering telecom revenues, which represent a significant percentage of the treasury’s income.

Harb also said he planned to reverse an earlier decision that required the registration of the International Mobile Station Equipment Identity, a unique number assigned by manufacturers to every handset, with the customs department.

The decision issued by former Telecoms Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui required large importers and individuals to register the IMEIs of new mobile phones on the database before they could be used on the touch or Alfa networks.

The decision was aimed at cracking down on smuggled phones, but Harb said large cartels were still capable of evading detection.

“The measure had a negative impact on the telecoms sector and tourism activity while large cartels of smugglers continue to bypass the system,” Harb said.

A telecoms expert who spoke on condition of anonymity had earlier told The Daily Star that several smugglers were illegally feeding the database with the IMEIs of untaxed mobiles before importing them to Lebanon.

The Daily Star

Infant dies of apparent suffocation in Sidon

SIDON, Lebanon: A one-year-old infant died in a tragic incident in the coastal city of Sidon Tuesday after his mother, apparently rushing to her work, mistakenly left him in the car to suffocate.

Farah Saad, a mother of two children who works as a teacher at a school affiliated with the Al-Makassed Charitable Society in Sidon, everyday drops one kid at his school before taking the infant, Nasser, to a nursery.

After dropping the first kid, Saad, contrary to custom, forgot to take Nasser to the nursery and instead left him in his cart seat for long hours in her car, which was locked and parked in the school’s square.

At the end of the school’s teaching hours, Saad returned to the car to see her son in his cart seat motionless, a scene that shocked the mother and made her collapse.

Upon the mother’s screams, other teachers came and rushed the baby to a nearby hospital in a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to save his life.

After being informed of the incident, the baby’s father came to hospital to see a group of stunned teachers in the corridor trying to soothe the shocked mother.

Speaking to police investigators who came to the hospital, the mother said she thought she had dropped her son at the nursery before coming to her school.

Sidon’s coroner Afif Khafaja examined the baby’s dead body before presenting a report to the General Prosecution.
By Mohammed Zaatari

The Daily Star

White House: Obama has not decided to release Israeli spy

WASHINGTON: U.S. President Barack Obama has not made a decision to release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday.

Jonathan Pollard was convicted of espionage and he is serving his sentence,” Carney said.

“I don’t have any other update to provide you on Mr. Pollard’s status. There are obviously a lot of things happening in that arena and I am not going to get ahead of discussions that are under way,” he said.

(Reuters)

Kim Kardashian wades into Syria war debate

BEIRUT: Kim Kardashian has waded into Syria’s conflict, calling on fans through Twitter to save the ancient Armenian Christian village of Kassab, whose residents fled as rebels seized control of the hamlet in late March.

She appeared to have bolstered false claims by loyalists of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who said Syrian rebels desecrated the village’s churches and slaughtered residents. She used the #SaveKessab hashtag that was used to spread the false claims, causing its popularity to explode.

“If you don’t know what’s going on in Kessab please google it … As an Armenian, I grew up hearing so many painful stories,” Kardashian wrote in a March 30 tweet, using an alternate spelling of the village’s name. “Please let’s not let history repeat itself!!!!!! Let’s get this trending!!!! #SaveKessab #ArmenianGenocide,” she wrote.

In doing so, the celebrity of Armenian descent underscored how Syria’s war, more than any other in history, has been waged on social media, with both supporters of President Bashar Assad and those opposing his rule using selectively chosen videos and photos, sometimes faked, recycled or altered, to support their grievances.

While wartime propaganda is as old as conflict itself, the Syrian conflict is a particularly unique case where all combatants heavily use social media, opening a window into a conflict that reporters can barely enter.

Kardashian’s use of the two hashtags side-by-side, “#SaveKessab” and “#ArmenianGenocide” also suggested she was also linking the flight of most of Kassab’s 2,000 residents to the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman forces in the early 20th century.

The event is widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, denies that the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Kardashian’s publicist Ina Treciokas said Kardashian was “just voicing her support for Armenians” and said she had no additional comment.

Kassab’s residents fled after rebels seized their village on March 23, as part of a rebel offensive in the coastal Syrian province of Latakia, Assad’s ancestral heartland.

There are no credible reports that rebels killed any residents, or that they inflicted major damage on churches.

Kardashian appeared to have moved on since.

Her Kassab tweets were followed by a flurry of sultry selfies of her riding on a boat in a skimpy top and long skirt with hashtags like #WishYouWereHere and #WhatALife. She has been posting from Thailand in recent days, including one that shows her sitting at the entry of a temple featuring the Buddha.
Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

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