Riad Salameh is wanted by the French judiciary, but what weight does that hold in Lebanon?

Judges in France issued an arrest warrant for the Central Bank Governor after he failed to appear at a corruption investigation hearing

Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh failed to attend a hearing on Tuesday. AFP
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The arrest warrant against Lebanon's embattled Central Bank Governor did not come out of the blue.

Weeks of reports foreshadowed the French judiciary's decisive move to file preliminary charges of fraud and money laundering against Riad Salameh, during a hearing on Tuesday.

As Mr Salameh's absence was noted in court, the Lebanese justice responsible for delivering the summons on behalf of France, said officials were “unable to locate the governor”.

That argument failed to convince the French judge leading the case, Aude Buresi, who issued an arrest warrant on Tuesday, two sources told The National.

“Mr Salameh is no longer a suspect. He now stands accused in the case”, said Karim Daher, a Financial Accountability Transparency and Integrity panellist and lawyer.

An arrest warrant is issued for those who are either on the run or living outside France, if compelling evidence is provided indicating their involvement, either as perpetrators or accomplices, in the commission of a crime.

It is not an indictment yet. “It will become an indictment if the judiciary fails to execute the arrest warrant”, a French lawyer told The National.

Several European countries are investigating Mr Salameh for allegedly embezzling at least $330 million dollars from the central bank through a brokerage contract signed with his brother's company, Forry Associates Ltd.

Forry, which investigators suspect is a shell company, received a commission on each transaction with the commercial bank for more than a decade. The money was allegedly then laundered through the purchase of luxury properties in Europe for Mr Salameh and his relatives.

“The French judge can now request a red notice from Interpol”, said Mr Daher.

“This will inform its members that the individual in question is wanted. Authorities will then be able to help identify and locate the targeted person in their countries in a bid to extradite them to the country that issued the notice.”

According to the departing Lebanese Minister of Interior, Bassam Mawlawi, the request has not been made yet.

“There is no Interpol arrest warrant against the governor of the central bank so far, but rather a warrant issued by a French judge,” he said on Tuesday.

The French government must submit a request to Interpol, which in turn will present a red notice to Lebanon for further examination.

“Lebanon can request France to prepare an extradition request, which will then be examined,” said Mr Mawlawi. “The extradition of the accused can only take place after a decree is issued by the Lebanese government.”

If a red notice is issued, Lebanon is not legally compelled to extradite Mr Salameh and probably won't, in line with its long-standing policy of not extraditing its own citizens.

“Mr Salameh would not be extradited due to Lebanese legal provisions and the absence of an extradition treaty”, Former justice minister Marie-Claude Najm previously told The National.

For some, the situation has parallels with that of businessman Carlos Ghosn, who fled house arrest in Japan to Lebanon, which in turn refuses to extradite him. He now lives a seemingly normal life in Beirut.

While the case is ongoing, most of Mr Salameh's assets – more than a hundred million dollars of property and banking assets across Europe – remain frozen.

If he is convicted, these assets could be sold and the proceeds would potentially be returned to Lebanon.

Mr Salameh denies any wrongdoing.

On Tuesday, Mr Salameh said that he would challenge the decision, because the French investigation neglected the “confidentiality of investigations”, and contradicted “the presumption of innocence” in its approach, and in its selective application of texts and laws.

International discredit

But what awaits Mr Salameh in Lebanon If he is not extradited?

The latest developments have led to growing calls for his resignation as Lebanon's Central Bank Governor.

Mr Daher says he is concerned about the implications of this case on his country.

“It raises serious concerns for Lebanon's international reputation to have a central bank governor – who is also the president of the special investigation committee for money laundering and financing of terrorism – himself accused of money laundering”, he said.

Opposition MP Marc Daou tweeted on Tuesday that “Riad Salameh must resign immediately in order to preserve and respect state institutions”.

The French judiciary's decision was praised by some political parties.

“The international arrest warrant issued in absentia against Riad Salameh represents a significant turning point in the fight against corruption,” said the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party.

However, the issue of his resignation is likely to be short-lived, as Mr Salameh's mandate is due to expire in July.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who has long supported Mr Salameh, has recently adopted a new stance, making it clear that he will not be renewing his mandate.

However, a consensus is yet to be reached on the appointment of a successor, to avoid a power vacuum.

There are intense debates within the ruling class about whether the caretaker cabinet has the authority to appoint a governor in the absence of a president, or if the vice- governor should assume the role of an interim governor.

Updated: July 26, 2023, 11:43 AM