Lebanon judge orders arrest of central bank governor's brother Raja Salameh

Sources highlight suspicions of embezzlement via Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands

Riad Salameh has been central bank governor in Lebanon since 1993. Reuters
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A Lebanese judge ordered the arrest on Thursday of Raja Salameh, the brother of embattled central bank governor Riad Salameh, the state-run National News Agency has reported.

Raja Salameh, 61, was detained after he was questioned by judge Ghada Aoun, following a complaint filed by Lebanese activists and lawyers who accuse him of money laundering and illicit enrichment, the NNA said.

Judicial sources told The National that Raja Salameh was being held in Baabda, east of Beirut. Ms Aoun is expected to transfer her investigation to Mount Lebanon First Investigative Judge Nicolas Mansour.

A local station, Al-Jadeed TV, quoted Ms Aoun as saying that Riad Salameh had used his brother to buy real-estate in France worth nearly $12 million.

Raja Salameh's arrest comes weeks after his brother, who has been central bank governor since 1993, avoided being arrested by Lebanese State Security forces when they tried to apprehend him at his home and office.

The arrest warrant for the governor was filed after he failed to appear in court to answer questions related to corruption investigations.

Riad Salameh, 71, is under investigation in Lebanon and in at least five European countries on suspicion of money laundering. He has repeatedly denied the accusation and claims it is politically motivated. Ms Aoun banned Riad Salameh from foreign travel in January.

Judicial sources said they believe that Raja Salameh was arrested for helping his brother to launder $330 million between 2002 and 2015 through a contract signed between his British Virgin Islands company Forry Associates and the central bank.

A Swiss request for judicial co-operation from Lebanon, dated November 2020, states that Swiss judges believe the Salameh brothers channelled some of these funds to Switzerland and laundered the money by investing in property across Europe, particularly in the UK.

The Swiss request prompted Lebanon to open an investigation into Riad Salameh's wealth, led by judge Jean Tannous, alongside Ms Aoun's probe.

“There is a duty on the Lebanese judiciary to handle this away from political or electoral bargaining and co-operate fully with the international prosecution”, tweeted Swiss foundation Accountability Now, which has filed complaints against the Salameh brothers in several European countries.

Mr Tannous was recently barred at the last minute from raiding Raja Salameh's accounts with five Lebanese banks. This came after a call from Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who reportedly threatened to resign.

Raja Salameh is a low-profile figure who is a board member of Solidere, a public-private partnership that manages central Beirut and which has close connections to Lebanese politicians.

In a separate investigation, Mr Tannous found that Solidere had not paid $32m in taxes, judicial sources said. The investigation was transferred five months ago to another judge.

Solidere's website shows that Raja Salameh joined the company in 2012.

In 2003, he set up a consultancy “for high net worth individuals, developers and financial companies”.

His biography states that he previously worked for the now-defunct Republic Bank of New York and in the hospitality business in Lebanon and France.

Updated: March 17, 2022, 6:28 PM