Former partner of Lebanon's central bank chief indicted in France

The move is part of an investigation opened last June by the French judiciary to investigate the governor's wealth

Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh. Reuters
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Anna Kosakova, 46, a former partner of the governor of Lebanon's central bank, is under formal investigation in France for criminal conspiracy, organised money laundering, and aggravated tax fraud laundering, French investigative journal Mediapart reported on Thursday.

The indictment was confirmed to The National by an informed source.

"This kind of decision usually does not stay isolated: other indictments will follow," the source said.

The French Financial Prosecutor’s Office said it does not comment on ongoing cases.

Antigraft judge Aude Buresi issued the decision on July 14 as part of her investigation into Riad Salameh’s fortune and alleged embezzlement of public funds opened after two complaints filed by anti-corruption organisations.

Ms Kosakova, a Ukrainian woman who lives in France and has a daughter with the central bank governor, is the first person to be prosecuted in the case.

Under French law, an indictment means that there is serious evidence that the person under investigation has participated in a crime or an offence: it is not a judgment, and the presumption of innocence applies.

Once praised as the man who kept Lebanon’s banking sector thriving, Mr Salameh now faces investigations for alleged money laundering in several European countries.

After a joint investigation team was set up, the EU's Hague-based criminal justice agency last March froze €120 million ($124.3 million) worth of assets belonging to Mr Salameh and members of his family.

If proven guilty, Mr Salameh faces up to 10 years in prison and the confiscation of his assets in Europe.

More than $330 million allegedly embezzled

The Swiss attorney general’s office opened the first criminal inquiry targeting Mr Salameh in October 2020. The prosecutor suspects Mr Salameh of embezzling about $330 million in public funds through Forry Associates, a company registered in the Virgin Islands, whose owner is the governor’s brother, Raja Salameh.

Under a brokerage contract signed in 2002, commercial banks paid commissions to Forry when they bought certificates of deposit from the central bank, an investment instrument offered to banks.

While central banks sometimes use intermediaries to sell their financial products, the total opacity of this contract raised suspicions among Lebanese financiers. The exact services provided by Forry are still unclear.

Swiss prosecutors found that most of the commissions were transferred to Raja Salameh’s account in Switzerland, then partly wired to his accounts in five Lebanese banks.

Mediapart reported that Ms Kosakova is one of the direct beneficiaries of Forry's commissions through Forri (for First Overseas Relation for Realty and Investment Ltd), a company she created in Cyprus in 2004, according to the country's trade register.

The French judiciary is trying to determine if the profits from the alleged embezzlement of public funds were channelled through investments in France, where Mr Salameh's entourage owns important real estate properties.

Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh. Reuters

The real estate investment company run by Ms Kosakova since 2015, SCI ZEL, has acquired real estate in Paris worth at least €14.3 million, according to deeds of sale seen by The National.

This includes offices on the upmarket avenue des Champs-Elysee worth €8.7 million and two apartments in Paris’s 16th arrondissement on Avenue Georges-Mandel, where Ms Kosakova lives.

SCI ZEL was initially managed by Raja Salameh before he left the management and transferred his 1 per cent share to Ms Kosakova in 2015.

BET SA, an asset management company established in Luxembourg in 2007, whose sole shareholder is Ms Kosakova, owns the 99 per cent of remaining shares. In 2020, she transferred the bare ownership to her daughter while keeping the right of usufruct, which is the right to benefit from the company.

According to Mediapart, the French judiciary has traced an alleged money laundering scheme from the Swiss account of Forry to SCI ZEL through numerous banking operations between BET SA, Forry, and Raja Salameh's accounts in Switzerland.

The Central Bank spokesman did not reply to a request for comment.

Riad Salameh has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

He said that his wealth, which he estimates at $23 million, has been lawfully acquired and comes from investments he made while working at Merrill Lynch as a banker, before becoming the central bank governor in 1993.

Updated: December 05, 2022, 2:14 PM
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