‘Iron Lady’ to face maximum punishment

Prosecutors plan to add 30 new charges of check fraud to Hoda Abdel Moneim’s existing slate of fraud and bribery charges.

Prosecutors will recommend the maximum punishment for Hoda Abdel Moneim, a high profile businesswoman who fled the country more than 20 years ago while under investigation for fraud.

"In any crime in Egyptian law in the penal code there is a minimum and maximum sentence," Adel el-Said, head of technical office of the general prosecutor, told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "We will ask for the maximum."

Abdel Moneim–dubbed the Iron Lady–defrauded investors in her real estate properties to the tune of LE45 million in the 1980’s after the government ordered her to stop building and return money she acquired. She also allegedly bribed officials to obtain building licenses and acquire bank loans. She was sentenced in absentia in 1996 to 64 years in prison and in 2000 to 10 years in prison with hard labor for bribery and misuse of public funds.

"When you take a huge amount of money from a bank, the bank has to be sure you are fit to pay it back," said Magdi Youssef, the head of foreign cooperation for the Administrative Control Authority, the financial crimes investigation unit that started looking into Abdel Moneim’s accounts as early as 1983.

The prosecutor’s office said she now faces an additional 30 counts of check fraud for writing checks to repay investors without enough funds in the bank to support them. The maximum penalty for check fraud is a fine of LE 50,000 and imprisonment, according to a former official from the Ministry of Justice. She will also be retried for her previous convictions in an appeals court.

She will not face hard labor if convicted, according to the prosecutor. That punishment has been abolished for financial crimes. But given the high profile nature of her case–and that she had ties to high government officials–the outcome will be viewed as sending a message about the government’s attitude toward corruption in business.

"We don’t need another businessman who will evacuate the country; we need real businessmen," said Ahmed el-Naggar, an economist for the Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies.

"It will be a very bad message to society if corruption is not punished. And it’s a very bad message to businessmen."

The severity of her punishment, however, could discourage others who have fled the country in the middle of a scandal. It was rumored that Abdel Moneim had struck a deal with the government to return, but the prosecutor’s office had no knowledge of such a deal.

Passport control officials caught Abdel Moneim in the Cairo International Airport in the end of August when she was arriving from Greece, where she is believed to have spent the last two decades. The Embassy of Greece in Cairo said that the Greek government played no role in extraditing Abdel Moneim.

It still remains unclear why Abdel Moneim returned with the same audacity of passing through airport security as she did when she left. She may have believed that the statute of limitations, which is 20 years for felonies, had passed. The statute freezes, however, if there is an obstacle to enforcement, such as when the suspect flees the country.

Her lawyer, Raggae Attia, declined to comment on the case when approached by Al-Masry Al-Youm. Abdel Moneim will remain in custody as she awaits an appeals hearing.

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