Explainer – The investigations into the head of the Lebanese Central Bank, Salameh
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese authorities on Thursday charged longtime central bank governor Riad Salameh, his brother Raja and one of his assistants with money laundering, embezzlement and illegal enrichment in the high-profile case after months of delay.
However, the development has also raised fears that authorities in Lebanon, where Salameh still enjoys high-level political support, may slow down cooperation with European investigators investigating Salameh over the same allegations.
The Salameh brothers have denied any wrongdoing.
Here’s what you need to know about the cases:
The investigation began with a Swiss probe into whether Salameh and 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 launched their own investigations to determine whether tens of millions of dollars of the central bank’s alleged embezzlement have been laundered in Europe.
In March 2022, the European Union Organization for Cooperation in Criminal Justice announced the freezing of around 120 million euros ($130 million) of Lebanese assets in France, Germany, Luxembourg, Monaco and Belgium. The assets were frozen in a case in which the Munich public prosecutor identified Salameh as a suspect.
Lebanon has received several requests for cooperation from European judicial authorities. In January 2023, a team of European investigators from Germany, France and Luxembourg arrived to interview witnesses and gather additional evidence.
LEBANESE PROBE LIMPT ALONG
Lebanese authorities said they opened their own investigation after receiving a request for judicial cooperation from Switzerland.
Critics doubted that the Lebanese judiciary, where appointments depend largely on political support, would seriously investigate a person of Salameh’s stature if he had the backing of the highest political elite.
The judiciary does not deny the difficulties. In November, Lebanon’s senior judge said in a general comment that political interference in the work of the judiciary had created a chaotic situation that would require a “revolution of approaches” to resolve.
Jean Tannous, the judge assigned to lead the preliminary inquiry, faced hurdles including reportedly an intervention by Prime Minister Najib Mikati to prevent him from accessing bank data. Mikati denied the reports.
Reuters reported that chief prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat barred Tannous from attending a Paris meeting with European prosecutors investigating Salameh last year.
In June 2022, Oueidat directed a prosecutor to formally charge Salameh with crimes including money laundering, illicit enrichment, forgery and tax evasion. But the prosecutor refused and last year tried to be dismissed from the case.
On Thursday, a newly appointed prosecutor, Judge Raja Hamoush, charged Salameh with money laundering, embezzlement and illegal enrichment. In comments to Reuters, Salameh said he was innocent, adding that the charges were “no charges”. Salameh promised to comply with court procedures.
A separate investigation by Mount Lebanon prosecutor Ghada Aoun led to Salameh being charged with illegal enrichment in March 2022 in a case related to buying and renting apartments in Paris, including some by the central bank.
Salameh has denied the allegations, saying the charges are politically motivated.
The case was referred to a coroner, but Salameh did not attend a hearing.
Salameh continued to exercise extensive powers during the investigation and enjoyed the support of powerful figures including Speakers of Parliament Nabih Berri and Mikati.
He was a cornerstone of a financial system that served the interests of key factions in Lebanon after the 1975-1990 civil war, and many observers say those groups fear his fall would affect them.
His last six-year term ends in July.
Salameh has said he does not want to continue the post. But Lebanon’s most powerful groups have yet to publicly propose alternatives. The finance minister said it would be difficult to replace him this month, citing Lebanon’s political complexities.
A political crisis has left Lebanon without a president and a full cabinet for months.
While Salameh has said he is expected to leave in July, some analysts say his term could be renewed again.
(Writing by Timour Azhari; Editing by Tom Perry, Alexandra Hudson, William Maclean)