French legal complaint targets Lebanon's central bank chief

Riad Salameh has been accused of fraudulently amassing a large fortune in Europe

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 11, 2019 Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh gestures during a press conference at the bank's headquarters in Beirut on November 11, 2019. Riad Salame and four of his relatives are targeted by a complaint in France from the NGO Sherpa and a Lebanese collective who accuse them of having illegally hidden suspected funds in Europe, the two associations announced on May 3, 2021.  / AFP / JOSEPH EID

Two associations filed a legal complaint on Monday against Lebanon's central bank governor, Riad Salameh, who they accuse of fraudulently amassing a large fortune in Europe.

Sherpa, which specialises in fighting financial crime, and the "collective of victims of fraudulent and criminal activities in Lebanon" said they were also filing against Mr Salameh's brother Raja, his son Nadi, his nephew, and a close associate at the central bank, Marianne Hoayek, in the case.

The complaints were filed with the French Financial Prosecutor's Office. Last month, Swiss media reported that prosecutors there were tracking Mr Salameh's suspected fund movements.

The central bank governor, who is at the centre of Lebanon’s worst financial crisis in three decades, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Mr Salameh, a former Merrill Lynch banker who advised former prime minister Rafik Hariri, has been governor of the country’s central bank since 1993 and helped Lebanon navigate through successive conflicts with Israel, civil strife, and shielded it from the 2008 global financial crisis.

The Swiss Attorney General's office said in January that it was investigating "aggravated money laundering in connection with possible embezzlement" to the detriment of the Lebanese central bank, or Banque du Liban.

The French complaint, filed on April 30, calls for an international investigation of an alleged conspiracy to launder money, receive laundered money, commit fraud and engage in fraudulent commercial practices, among other accusations.

Lebanon has been mired in deep crisis since 2019, with its currency losing more than 85 per cent of its value against the US dollar. Inflation reached 158 per cent in March. Banks have restricted depositor withdrawals and money transfers abroad. The economic crisis has led to an increase in poverty and unemployment in the country.

The associations are asking the judiciary to investigate Lebanese capital flight since the start of the crisis, and how the people named in the complaint could afford luxury property that was far beyond their official income.

They also want the inquiry to extend to financial intermediaries using tax havens and front companies.

The complaint claims Mr Salameh's fortune is in excess of €2 billion ($2.41bn). The central bank governor was already wealthy prior to heading the country's regulator and declared a net worth of $23 million prior to assuming his role in 1993.

Mr Salameh, who owns a luxury seafront villa in Antibes on the French Riviera, has rejected figures put forward by his accusers.

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