France to share results of central bank governor inquiry with Lebanon

Exclusive: Lebanese judiciary expected to transfer information of bank accounts belonging to the governor’s brother to France

Lebanon's Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, at his office in Beirut on December 20, 2021. AFP
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France's judiciary has given a written assurance to its Lebanese counterparts that it will share the results of its investigation into the wealth of Lebanon’s embattled central bank governor, Riad Salameh, Lebanese judicial sources told The National.

This paves the way for Lebanese investigative judges to share information pertaining to nine bank accounts belonging to Raja Salameh, the central bank governor’s younger brother, with French authorities in the coming months, the sources said.

The transfer could unlock further information on how millions of dollars of what are suspected to be embezzled Lebanese funds were moved between Lebanon and Switzerland at a time when the country is struggling with what the World Bank described as one of the world's worst economic collapses since the 1950s.

“We are willing to execute France’s request for judicial co-operation once reciprocity is in place,” a judicial source said.

The Paris judicial tribunal did not respond to a request for comment.

There is no mutual legal assistance treaty between France and Lebanon, although they are bound by the 2003 UN convention against corruption.

In the past two years France and Switzerland have asked Lebanon for judicial assistance in their investigations into Riad Salameh's wealth.

France has so far not sent information to Lebanon, the Lebanese judicial sources said. It is not clear whether Lebanon has sent any documents to France.

The sources said a letter received on Tuesday from French judge Aude Buresi is as a guarantee that France will transfer information regarding Riad Salameh to Lebanon at an undetermined time.

"Such letters are necessary even when there are international agreements in order to specify what exactly is needed from the other country's judicial authorities," said Marie-Claude Najm, who was Lebanon's justice minister between 2020 and 2021.

She established the country's first office for the facilitation of international judicial co-operation during her mandate.

The judicial sources said France would not need Lebanon’s permission to further share information on Raja Salameh's accounts with at least four other European countries investigating the Salameh brothers.

They are suspected to be part of a network of embezzlement that plundered at least $330 million in public funds.

The brothers deny all wrongdoing.

Germany, France and Luxembourg in March seized assets of Riad Salameh and his entourage worth $120 million with the co-ordination of the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Co-operation (Eurojust).

The Lebanese central bank’s special investigation committee transferred the history of Raja Salameh's accounts to state public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidate in early May, more than a year after he requested them.

Such information is normally covered by Lebanon’s banking secrecy law but can be lifted in cases of suspicion of money laundering.

The committee is headed by Riad Salameh, who told Reuters at the time of the handover of his brother's banking information that he had stepped back from presiding over the body to avoid a conflict of interest.

A judicial source said the committee transferred information on May 5, on the same day Mrs Buresi visited Lebanon to discuss her investigation into the Salameh brothers with her Lebanese counterparts.

A second source said Mrs Buresi was expected to appoint an expert to verify the information on Raja Salameh’s accounts’ history once it is transferred to France.

A stalled investigation

The investigation into Riad Salameh’s wealth in Lebanon seemed to have stalled last week after Beirut public prosecutor Ziad Abou Haidar refused to implement Mr Oueidate’s order to prosecute the central bank governor and his entourage.

The reasons for Mr Abou Haidar's refusal are unclear. He declined to talk to The National.

Mr Abou Haidar was asked to press charges against Riad Salameh, his adviser Marianne Hoayek and his brother Raja for illicit enrichment, embezzlement, money laundering, tax evasion, forgery and falsification of records, according to a judicial source.

The charges are based on the year-long preliminary investigation conducted by a separate judge, Jean Tannous, into Swiss allegations that the Salameh brothers embezzled millions from the central bank between 2002 and 2015 under the guise of commissions on commercial banks’ purchases of government certificates of deposits.

These commissions allegedly went to Forry Associates Ltd, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands and managed by Raja Salameh.

Sources say that funds transited through Lebanon, Switzerland and then back to Lebanon, which is why European investigators want access to his Lebanese banking information.

Lebanese banks refused to hand the data over directly to Mr Tannous, citing banking secrecy laws. They sent them to the central bank’s special investigation committee instead.

Another Lebanese judge, Ghada Aoun, is also investigating Riad Salameh. She charged him in March with illicit enrichment and raided his home on Wednesday.

She has based her investigation on a lawsuit filed by Lebanese activists against the central bank governor. They also suspect a Ukrainian woman, Anna Kosakova, who had a child with him and lives in Paris, to have benefited from embezzled funds.

Several sources said that Mr Abou Haidar was reluctant to handle Mr Salameh’s case owing to its politically sensitive content.

Riad Salameh has been known to retaliate through legal channels.

He and his brother filed lawsuits against Mr Oueidate and Mr Tannous earlier this month for "grave mistakes", with little apparent effect at the time of writing.

Riad Salameh became central bank governor in 1993 and enjoyed a stellar reputation until Lebanon’s financial sector collapsed in 2019.

One judicial source said there was a fear that imprisoning him would mean “the total collapse of the banking system”. Another dismissed the concern, saying that Mr Abou Haidar had no choice but to execute orders.

Lebanese judicial procedures dictate that after pressing charges, Mr Abou Haidar transfers the results of Mr Tannous’s investigation to Beirut’s first investigative judge, Charbel Bou Samra.

Mr Bou Samra will have to share the information with French judges once he has examined the file.

This could take months as the information pertaining to Raja Salameh's accounts reportedly runs into thousands of pages.

Updated: June 24, 2022, 1:55 PM