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Thursday, Feb 22, 2024

Lebanon’s central bank chief expected to be no-show in Paris court

Lebanon’s central bank chief expected to be no-show in Paris court

Riad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon’s central bank, Banque du Liban, is not expected to appear as scheduled before a European financial investigation at a Paris court on Tuesday.
He was summoned by French Judge Aude Buresi two weeks ago. It is thought the session was scheduled to bring charges against Salameh over allegations that he accumulated a fortune in European accounts, including cash and real estate, through a complex system of financial arrangements and the embezzlement of large amounts of Lebanese public funds.

The European investigation, involving France, Germany and Luxembourg, focuses on the relationship between the central bank and Forry Associates, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, with an office in Beirut, that is owned by the governor’s brother, Raja Salameh.

It is alleged it is a shell company used to transfer money out of Lebanon to European banks. It is suspected that more than $330 million was embezzled from the central bank through a grant contract with the company, in addition to illegal commissions from local Lebanese banks.

Officials at Mina El-Hosn police station in Beirut — the local law enforcement authority responsible for notifying Salameh he has been summoned by the judge in Paris — told the Lebanese judiciary that officers visited the central bank three times but the governor was not in his office.

A Lebanese judicial source told Arab News on Monday: “The acting first investigating judge in Beirut, Charbel Abou Samra, responded four days ago to the French request to notify Salameh through the Lebanese judiciary, informing the French judiciary that Salameh could not be found and notified within the deadline.”

The Lebanese judiciary carried out a French judicial request but has no other input or say in any actions French legal authorities might take, the source said, adding: “According to the European-Lebanese judicial cooperation, Lebanon may witness more judicial requests with which it will cooperate as it has done before.”

When Salameh was questioned in Beirut in mid-March by a European judicial delegation, led by Judge Buresi, he appeared as a witness at that time.

“(He) was not interrogated as a suspect in the Palace of Justice in Beirut, as foreign judiciaries are not authorized to accuse anyone on Lebanese soil. This can only be done on the territory of the country investigating the case,” the source explained.

The European judicial delegation questioned a number of other witnesses in Beirut during two rounds of investigations, including caretaker Finance Minister Youssef Khalil, bankers, current and former officials from the central bank, and auditors of the bank’s accounts.

They also spoke with Raja Salameh during a session that lasted more than six hours, and with Marianne Hoayek, who is Riad Salameh’s assistant.

Judge Abou Samra has not imposed a travel ban on Riad Salameh, despite local investigations into allegations of his involvement in embezzlement, money laundering, forgery, counterfeiting and tax evasion. The judicial source confirmed that the judge set May 18 as the date on which the Salameh brothers and Hoayek are to appear before him, and the summons remains in force.

“Salameh is considered to be notified of this date through his legal representative, who has previously filed pleadings on his behalf,” the source added.

Investigations conducted by Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor Judge Ghada Aoun into Salameh and the activities at the central bank initially included a travel ban.

“However, Judge Aoun later revoked the decision,” the source added.

Salameh’s position as governor does not grant him any legal immunity. The 72-year-old has been governor of the central bank for more than 30 years. His current term ends in July and he has indicated that he will not seek another.

A constitutional, legal and political debate continues regarding the appointment of a new governor given the political paralysis in Lebanon. A caretaker government remains in charge, with limited powers, and the office of president has been vacant since Michel Aoun’s term ended in October.

Members of the Forces of Change in Lebanon, a bloc of new MPs elected a year ago, hold Salameh responsible for the collapse of the Lebanese currency, which has lost more than 90 percent of its value since 2019, and the unprecedented economic crisis that continues to grip the country. They also accuse successive governments of corruption.

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