Brother of Lebanon’s central bank governor denies corruption charges

A Lebanese judge is expected to press charges on Monday

A prosecutor in Beirut said charges would be pressed against Riad and Raja Salameh on Monday.

The brother of Lebanon’s central bank governor denies allegations that he embezzled public funds, saying he should be given the opportunity to defend himself in court, his lawyer said on Friday.

Tensions between Lebanon’s judiciary and the banking sector rose after Raja Salameh, 71, was detained on Thursday following a three-hour hearing scheduled by Mount Lebanon prosecutor judge Ghada Aoun, one of two Lebanese judges investigating him and his brother, Riad.

The hearing came after a complaint filed by a group of lawyers last month accusing the two men of money laundering, illicit enrichment and squandering public funds.

“In a period of three hours his status changed from witness to accused, to finally being arrested in total disregard of the most basic and fundamental rules,” said Marwan Issa El Khoury, who is Raja Salameh's lawyer and nephew, in a statement.

He said his client was denied the chance to present evidence at the hearing. Without an arrest warrant, Ms Aoun can keep Raja Salameh in detention for a maximum of four days, she told The National on Friday.

She said she would press charges against the two brothers on Monday and send officers to force Riad Salameh to appear for a hearing.

The governor evaded security forces when they tried to take him for questioning on February 15. He had failed to appear three times before the judge.

Riad Salameh has denied accusations of money laundering and accused Ms Aoun of political bias.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a staunch supporter of the central bank governor, criticised the arrest of Raja Salameh – a board member at a public-private partnership that manages central Beirut – and called for a Cabinet meeting on Saturday to “discuss judicial and banking issues”.

Ms Aoun has separately frozen the assets of six of the banks as she investigates transactions between them and the central bank. Another judge froze the assets of a seventh bank.

Banks said that they will strike for two days next week in protest.

Lebanon's banks have been paralysed since the financial system collapsed in 2019 under the weight of huge public debt caused by decades of state corruption, locking depositors out of their savings. It is Lebanon's most destabilising crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

A group of Lebanese lawyers who call themselves “pioneers for justice” filed a complaint on February 10 against the Salameh brothers and Anna Kosakova, 44, a Ukrainian woman who lives in France and has a daughter with the central bank governor.

The lawyers claimed that they used fictitious French and Luxembourg companies to launder public money and buy property.

The allegations, Mr El Khoury said, were based on media reports which he dismissed as “speculation”. The lawyer denied that two companies linked to Raja Salameh received illegal funds and said the source of the money was fully traceable.

Riad Salameh’s wealth is under investigation in at least five European countries. Swiss judges suspect that he laundered $330 million between 2002 and 2015 through a contract signed between the central bank and a British Virgin Islands company, Forry Associates, controlled by his brother.

Updated: March 19, 2022, 3:31 PM