Saturday, May 18, 2024

French judge issues arrest warrant for Lebanon’s central bank governor; he vows to appeal

French prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Lebanon’s central bank governor, Riad Salameh. The governor has slammed the move and promised that he would appeal against the decision.

The warrant followed Salameh’s failure to appear before French prosecutors on Tuesday to be questioned on corruption charges, officials said.

In a statement, he stated the arrest warrant is a violation of the law.

Salameh, 72, has been the target of a series of judicial investigations at home and abroad on allegations that include fraud, money laundering and illicit enrichment.

European investigators looking into the fortune he has amassed during three decades in the job had scheduled a hearing in Paris for Tuesday.

A European judicial team from France, Germany and Luxembourg is conducting a corruption investigation into an array of financial crimes, including illicit enrichment and alleged laundering of $330m.

During a visit to Lebanon in March, a European delegation questioned Salameh about the Lebanese central bank’s assets and investments outside the country, a Paris apartment that the governor owns and his brother Raja Salameh’s brokerage firm Forry Associates Ltd.

Forry is a British Virgin Islands-registered company that listed Salameh’s brother as its beneficiary.

It is suspected of having brokered Lebanese treasury bonds and eurobonds at a commission, which was then allegedly transferred to bank accounts abroad.

Salameh has repeatedly denied all allegations against him. He has insisted that his wealth comes from his previous job as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch, inherited properties and investments.

The central bank chief did not appear before a judge in Paris after Lebanese authorities failed to hand him the official summons.

Lebanese “police officers visited the central bank four times last week to hand Riad Salameh an official summons” on behalf of the French authorities, a judicial official told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

“But they could not find him anywhere,” and the summons was returned to Lebanon’s judiciary, which was to notify French authorities, the official said.

Salameh’s whereabouts were not known.

The date for Tuesday’s hearing was set last month, and Lebanon lifted a travel ban on Salameh, who is also being investigated at home.

In the inquiry in Lebanon, Beirut Public Prosecutor Raja Hamoush in late February charged Salameh, his brother and a close associate with corruption, including embezzling public funds, forgery, illicit enrichment, money laundering and violation of tax laws.

Salameh, once hailed as the guardian of Lebanon’s financial stability, is being increasingly blamed for the country’s financial meltdown. Many say he helped precipitate the crisis, which has plunged three-quarters of the country’s population of 6 million into poverty.

Salameh’s term ends in July, and while there is no apparent successor, the veteran governor has said in television interviews that he plans to step down.

On Monday, defence lawyers representing Salameh, his brother and his former assistant Marianne Hoayek submitted “a formal request to the public prosecution to suspend European judicial assistance [in the case] because it is in conflict with the ongoing Lebanon probe”, the judicial official said.

Salameh’s lawyers accuse the European investigators of “violating Lebanon’s sovereignty” and want them to “permanently suspend” their investigation into the central bank’s ties to Forry Associates Ltd.

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