The Lebanese parliament today started discussing the proposed draft 1998 state budget, which carries an expected 37.46 percent deficit of income against expenditure. The three-day debate opened today during a parliamentary legislative session, covered live by Lebanon's TV stations, headed by House Speaker Nabih Berri and attended by Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri. The session was opened by Acting Finance Minister of State Fouad Sanyoura who presented a summary of the draft 98 state budget. Sanyoura reiterated the government's policy to revive the Lebanese economy adding the budget deficit is the main challenge facing this policy. He described the 98 budget as rigid but realistic.
Sanyoura's briefing was followed by a debate of the head of the parliamentary budget and finance committee Khalil Al-Hrawi whereby he presented the committee's report on the proposed budget. Deputy Al-Hrawi said the committee reduced the budget expenditure by about 170 billion Lebanese Liras and it did not reduce revenues adding this is the first time since Lebanon's independence in 1943 that the parliament reduces the budget expenditure figures rather than increasing them. In his debate, Hrawi suggested the government needs to improve tax collection adding it does not collect more than 50 percent of the annual taxes on vehicles and 40 percent of electricity and water services. Article nine of the draft law calls for hiking annual taxes on vehicles by up to 400 percent, a 233 percent tax raise on local cement and a doubling of taxes on both real estate sales and passport fees.
Different debates on the draft law followed Hrawi's presentation. Former prime minister deputy Salim Al-Hoss stressed the importance of administrative reform.
Deputy Issam Faris later called for the importance of continuing dialogue and cooperation between the government and the parliament. For her part, deputy Nayla Mouawad called for the independence of the judicial body from the executive authority and announced she would vote against the proposed budget. Other debated followed by deputies Wajih Al-Barini, Ibrahim Bayan, Joubran Tawk, Talal Al-Miribi and Sami Al-Khatib and many others. Around 49 deputies had requested to speak during the budget debate.
Other issues will also be high on the agenda of talks tomorrow in parliament, including massive overspending in 1997 which raised the deficit to 59 percent against a forecast 36 percent as well as proposed higher taxes under Article 9 of the 1998 budget, the main source of revenues. The budget calls for the spending of 7,925 billion Lebanese Liras against revenues of 4,956 billion Liras.
The five-nation cease-fire monitoring group today met at the headquarters of the United Nations Interim Forces in Naqoura. The group started discussing four complaints, one filed by Lebanon on the Israeli shelling of the Southern village of Gargoua in Iqlim Al-Touffah causing damages in two houses there. Israel, meanwhile, lodged three complaints over alleged truce violations. Israel accused the resistance in the South of damage caused in the villages of Bayyada and Debel. Sources close to the Lebanese delegation said the panel had urged both sides before the meeting not to target civilian areas during military operations in the South. This is the second meeting of the group this year and is expected to last until late tonight.
Amnesty International has urged the Lebanese authorities to spare the life of a 68-year-old Lebanese man who could face imminent execution for murder. In a press statement late yesterday, the London-based human rights group expressed concern over the passing of the death penalty on Ahmad Rida Yassin, whose clemency plea was rejected by the Lebanese Amnesty Committee. The Criminal Court in October 1997 upheld Yassin's conviction for murder of Zahra Attiyeh. Amnesty said it was not clear under the circumstances of the case if Yassin's sentence could still be commuted by President Elias Al-Hrawi. Amnesty urged the Lebanese authorities to review the expansion of the death penalty in March of 1994. Since then, the group said about 30 death sentences have been handed down by Lebanese courts and 12 judicial executions were carried out by December of 1997.
The newly-established ARK financial group in Lebanon yesterday announced plans to set up a real-estate fund and acquire three insurance companies only days after purchasing two small commercial banks. Chairman of the Lebanese holding company, Safi Harb said ARK planned to increase its initial capital from $16 million of $30 million in the next few weeks. He also announced ARK's plans to establish a real-estate fund in Lebanon with the objective if acquiring real estate assets repossessed by commercial banks. Harb added the central bank was expected to quickly approve ARK's purchase of Unibank and al-Moughtareb Bank at $6.6 million and $10.5 million respectively. Harb said the two banks would be merged and called The United Bank of Lebanon. On the insurance front, the group has identified three small companies to be merged into one insurance firm with a minimum capital of $5 million.
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