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Lebanon: foreign minister requests secrecy in Central Bank probe

The Central Bank of Lebanon [Karan Jain/Flickr]
The Central Bank of Lebanon [Karan Jain/Flickr]

Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister has asked Switzerland to investigate his country's Central Bank Governor in secret.

Charbel Wehbe made his request in a meeting with the Swiss ambassador to Lebanon, Monika Schmutz Kirgoz, yesterday. Kirgoz refused to comment on the matter, telling Wehbe that the probe was a matter for the Swiss minister of justice and attorney general, Arab News has reported.

"Despite the importance of this matter to the Lebanese public, absolute secrecy is required in response to what is being circulated through Lebanese media regarding this case," explained Wehbe. "I hope that the Lebanese judiciary will have absolute freedom to make a statement and take the appropriate decision in this regard." He called on Lebanese media outlets to "report the news as it is, without interpretation, additions, or switching words around."

Wehbe's overtures follow a request from the Swiss judiciary for assistance from Lebanon in conducting an investigation into Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh. The 70 year old is under investigation for "possible embezzlement" and "aggravated money laundering" at the bank. The investigation was launched at the request of the Lebanese government, which is probing reports that billions of dollars left the country despite a ban on overseas money transfers.

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The focus of the probe will be $400 million of overseas transfers purportedly made by Salameh and his close associates. The Swiss authorities have not yet confirmed if the governor is the subject of the investigation specifically.

Salameh, who has headed the Central Bank since 1993, has denied all such allegations. In a statement issued by the bank last week, he said that the claims that money had been moved abroad, "whether in his name, his brother's name, or his assistant's name" was "fake news". Yesterday, he added that news and figures circulating on social media about transfers from the bank are "exaggerated", reported Agence France Presse (AFP). "They aim to systematically tarnish the image of the Central Bank and its governor." He offered to go to Switzerland to defend his record at the bank.

The governor was accused of financial misdemeanours in a report by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and its Lebanese partner Daraj, in August last year. The report claimed that Salameh and his family own $100 million of assets worldwide, including real estate in Germany, Belgium and Britain, and have used several overseas shell companies to amass wealth illegitimately.

Salameh has also come under fire recently for his handling of Lebanon's financial crisis. The country's currency, the Lebanese pound, has lost more than 80 per cent of its value. Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed Salameh for the crisis, but he has repeatedly defended his role.

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