Lebanon judge to press charges against central bank governor on Monday

Riad Salameh’s brother Raja arrested on Thursday after questioning and will also be charged

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Lebanese judge Ghada Aoun will press charges against embattled central bank governor Riad Salameh and his brother on Monday and send officers to detain the banker.

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

Ms Aoun on Friday told The National that she will send security forces to compel Riad to come in for questioning on Monday, after he failed to appear at previous hearings and avoided officers when they previously tried to bring him to court.

“I cannot proceed differently,” she said.

After the previous raid on his home and office, Riad told The Financial Times that he was not on the run but was at home and going to work at the central bank.

Ms Aoun said that she was aware that Riad, 71, might not “willingly” hand himself in for questioning.

“I am not summoning him to arrest him. I am summoning him first and foremost to hear what he has to say,” said the judge, who in January barred the governor from travelling outside the country.

At Ms Aoun orders, Riad's brother Raja, 61, was arrested on Thursday, after hours of questioning.

“The charges against both will be [issued on] Monday,” she said.

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

Riad, who has led Lebanon’s central bank since 1993, has repeatedly denied the accusations against him, claiming that they are politically motivated.

His brother's arrest on Thursday caused shock in Lebanon, where few top officials are ever jailed despite widespread accusations of corruption.

A central bank representative did not respond to requests for comment on the latest developments.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Friday after a meeting with Justice Minister Henri Khoury that the course of action taken by some judges – whom he did not name – was heightening tensions in the country.

Mr Mikati said that “the judiciary has the right to investigate any financial and banking file, especially regarding the restoration of the rights of depositors … but the use of populist and police methods in the investigation process has harmed the judiciary and banking system as a whole”.

The statement said that “it was agreed to request that public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat take appropriate measures in this file”.

Lawyer Nizar Saghieh of watchdog Legal Agenda told The National that political interference in the judiciary was “extremely dangerous”.

Ms Aoun’s investigation of the Salameh brothers “has nothing to do with the rights of depositors”, Mr Saghieh said.

Lebanese depositors were frozen out of most of their savings at the start of the country’s financial crisis in 2019.

“Resorting to Mr Oueidat is just a way to bury [Ghada] Aoun’s investigation,” Mr Saghieh said.

Mr Oueidat and Ms Aoun have publicly sparred in the past over investigations involving Riad Salameh.

Lebanon's judiciary is widely viewed as vulnerable to political pressure, with judges owing their nominations to politicians.

Paris flats worth €14.3 million

Mr Mikati previously said that Riad should remain in his post despite increasing scrutiny from Lebanese and European courts, several of whom are investigating the central bank governor on suspicion of money laundering.

In January, Mr Mikati also reportedly stopped Jean Tannous, another Lebanese judge investigating Riad, from raiding local banks where Raja holds accounts.

Riad is part of the Lebanese team involved in protracted negotiations with the IMF for a bailout, as Lebanon’s economic crisis of more than two years worsens.

His supporters accuse Ms Aoun of working closely with President Michel Aoun, a vocal critic of the governor – a charge that the president denies. The two are distant relatives.

Ms Aoun had Raja arrested after an interrogation on Thursday based on a complaint filed on February 10 by a group of Lebanese lawyers who call themselves “pioneers for justice”.

They levelled several accusations against the Salameh brothers and Anna Kosakova, 44, a Ukrainian woman who lives in France and has a daughter with Riad.

The complaint also includes four European companies – Procedia SARL, Bet SA, SCI ZEL, and Eciffice SARL – which are said to have been used by Riad Salameh and his entourage to buy real estate in France.

“Raja and Riad and his girlfriend Anna Kosakova laundered money via fictitious companies based in France and Luxembourg,” lawyer Haitham Ezzo told The National.

Mr Ezzo referred to an article published by French magazine Le Point in May, which reported that while Riad’s name does not appear on the company records, corroborating evidence strongly suggests that he was the companies' beneficial owner.

Starting in 2007, ZEL bought real estate in Paris worth €14.3 million ($15.7m), according to Le Point.

Updated: March 19, 2022, 11:56 AM
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