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Lebanon's Bernie Madoff

A wealthy businessman with close ties to Hezbollah has been charged with stealing millions in a Ponzi scheme.

“If you ask anyone here in the village they will say he was good,” Hussein Ezzedine said. “He helped everyone: the poor, people with diseases, and people with kids who wanted to put them in school and couldn’t afford it. He was buying tractors for farmers, buying stuff for us without anything in return. Anything the village needed he was able to do or bring.”

Some in Marroub blame Ezzedine’s fall on the financial crisis, or an Israeli and American conspiracy to bring down a rich man close to Hezbollah. But even while people here say they’re reserving judgment or that Ezzedine was a good man, residents seem a bit overly eager to show off their town in a Hezbollah area normally known as being shy at best, and at worst downright hostile to the media.

GlobalPost was given a guided tour of Marroub, and Ezzedine’s neighborhood, by one investor who lost $120,000 with Ezzedine. The investor, Ali Fneish, showed off Ezzedine’s mansion’s massive front gate, the newly paved street and trees that shaded his house. Nearby Fneish showed off two large houses stopped in mid-construction that belong to Ezzedine’s partner, Yussef Faour, who has also been indicted. Talking to anyone in the village sparks wild stories of the big returns and even bigger losses associated with Ezzedine’s venture, and those who lost even more money in other villages.

Losses have been reported by investors in the oil rich Arabian Gulf countries, but the banker, and people in the southern villages, estimate that the majority of the scam’s victims are Lebanese who made their money outside Lebanon, and who have either returned or spend part of their time here.

“In the village of Yaroun, people say the village lost $100 million, because they made their money in the U.S. and France,” Chour said.

The banker says Hezbollah is dong a survey of residents in southern Lebanon who fell victim to the scam, with an aim to give money to the smallest investors who would otherwise be destitute without help.

Hussein Ezzedine, Marroub’s city administrator and distant relative, says he can’t call his town’s benefactor a thief, but he’s keeping an open mind.

“We are going to wait for the investigation,” he said. “From what comes out from the investigation perhaps we will change our view … perhaps we will still say what Salah Ezzedine did was good. But perhaps it will turn out it was not like that. Let’s wait to see what happened.”