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EXPLAINER - The probes into Lebanon Central Bank chief Salameh

May 23, 2023 at 7:27 pm

The Central Bank of Lebanon [Karan Jain/Flickr]

Lebanon has been verbally informed of a German arrest warrant against Lebanese Central Bank Governor, Riad Salameh, who is being investigated for money laundering and embezzlement in his home country and abroad but denies any wrongdoing, Reuters reports.

The move by Germany comes one week after France issued its own arrest warrant and just days after Interpol issued a Red Notice for the 72-year-old Governor.

Here’s what you need to know about the cases:

Europe investigates 

Investigations began with a Swiss probe into whether Salameh and his brother, Raja, illegally took more than $300 million from the Central Bank between 2002 and 2015.

Since then, European countries including France, Germany, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein have initiated their own investigations into whether tens of millions of dollars of the funds allegedly embezzled from the Central Bank were laundered in Europe.

READ: Lebanon: Central Bank stops fuel import subsidy

In March 2022, the European Union’s criminal justice cooperation organisation announced the freezing of some 120 million Euros ($130 million) of Lebanese assets in France, Germany, Luxembourg, Monaco and Belgium, in a case in which Munich prosecutors said Salameh was a suspect.

Lebanon has hosted European investigators three times: first in January, to interrogate witnesses and obtain additional evidence, then in March to question Salameh and in May to interrogate his brother, Raja, and an assistant, Marianne Hoayek.

France issued an arrest warrant on 16 May, after Salameh failed to appear at a hearing in Paris. He pledged to challenge the warrant. Interpol issued its Red Notice the same week.

France has also summoned Raja and Hoayek for hearings on 31 May and 13 June respectively.

Lebanese probe limps along 

Lebanese authorities said they opened their own probe after receiving a Swiss judicial cooperation request.

Critics doubted whether the Lebanese judiciary, where appointments largely depend on political backing, would seriously investigate a figure with the stature of Salameh, given his top-level political backing.

The judiciary do not deny the difficulties. In November, Lebanon’s most senior judge said, in a general comment, that political meddling in judicial work had led to a chaotic situation that required a “revolution in approaches” to resolve.

Jean Tannous, the judge appointed to lead the preliminary investigation, faced hurdles including, according to reports, an intervention by Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, to prevent him accessing data from banks. Mikati denied the reports.

READ: Germany issues arrest warrant for Lebanon Central Bank chief – sources

Top Prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, stopped Tannous from attending a Paris meeting last year with European prosecutors investigating Salameh, Reuters reported.

In June 2022, Oueidat ordered a prosecutor to formally charge Salameh, but the prosecutor refused and sought to be recused from the case before being blocked by legal challenges from the Governor.

In February, Salameh, Raja and assistant Marianne Hoayek were charged with money laundering, embezzlement and illicit enrichment in that case.

A separate probe by Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor, Ghada Aoun, led to Salameh being charged in March 2022 with illicit enrichment in a case related to the purchase and rental of Paris apartments, including some by the Central Bank.

Salameh has denied the allegations and has said the prosecution is politically motivated.

Salameh continues 

Salameh has been a cornerstone of a financial system that served the vested interests of Lebanon’s main factions after the 1975-90 civil war, and many observers say these groups fear his downfall would have repercussions for them.

READ: Civil groups file legal action to impose sanctions on ‘corrupt’ Lebanon politicians, bankers

He has enjoyed support from powerful figures, including Parliament Speaker, Nabih Berri and Mikati, but top officials have increasingly called for his resignation as foreign pressure on him grows.

Salameh’s latest six-year term ends in July. He has refused to step down early, unless a verdict is reached against him.

A political crisis that has left Lebanon without a president and a fully empowered cabinet is expected to complicate any attempt to replace him.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.