Lebanon charges central bank governor Riad Salameh and his brother

Raja Salameh was detained on Thursday on suspicion of illicit enrichment

Riad Salameh, above, Lebanon's central bank governor, has been charged along with this brother Raja. Reuters
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A Lebanese judge told The National on Monday that she has charged central bank governor Riad Salameh and his brother with illicit enrichment.

Judge Ghada Aoun confirmed in a message that she had charged both men and that Raja Salameh, 61, remained in custody at the time of writing.

She ordered his detention on Thursday after interrogating him about his role in allegedly helping Riad to launder money through property purchases in France and Luxembourg.

Riad, 71, defended himself by referring to an audit of the central bank that he commissioned in November.

“This audit report was submitted to the relevant authorities in Lebanon and abroad,” he said in response to a question sent by text message from Reuters.

Financial experts told The National that the document, which is not public, has no legal value and that Riad handed over information of his choosing.

Riad, governor of the Banque du Liban since 1993, did not attend a hearing scheduled for Monday, and Ms Aoun charged him in absentia, Reuters reported.

Ms Aoun unsuccessfully tried to force Riad to attend a hearing after he failed to show up three times. Riad told the media that he was at home and at his office in Beirut.

He has repeatedly denied accusations of money laundering and illicit enrichment and said his personal fortune came from a past salary as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch and from his inheritance.

Ms Aoun’s move on Monday was expected. She told The National on Friday that she would charge the Salameh brothers after a complaint filed by a group of lawyers last month accused them of money laundering, illicit enrichment and squandering public funds.

Without an arrest warrant, Ms Aoun cannot keep Raja in detention for more than four days.

She is expected to transfer her investigation to Mount Lebanon First Investigative Judge Nicolas Mansour. Mr Mansour can release Raja or keep him in detention for up to four months, judicial sources said.

Neither Riad’s office nor Raja’s lawyer, who issued a statement on Friday denying corruption charges, responded to a request for comment from The National on Monday.

Raja is a board member of a public-private partnership that has managed central Beirut since 2012.

Raja’s detention caused shock in Lebanon, where few officials are held for corruption and the judiciary is sensitive to political pressure.

The governor has strong political support in his home country despite increasing pressure in Europe, where he is under investigation in at least five countries for money laundering. No charges have been issued outside of Lebanon.

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 tension in the country. He said he had asked public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidate to take “appropriate measures”, without detailing them.

Local television channel MTV reported that it had asked Mr Mikati what would happen if Mr Oueidate did not respond. Mr Mikati reportedly answered: “We’ll send him home.”

Lawyer Nizar Saghieh of watchdog Legal Agenda said on Twitter that Mr Mikati’s response was evidence of the lack of independence of the Lebanese judiciary from politicians.

The state-run National News Agency reported on Saturday that Mr Mikati said he did not want to “protect any sector but to preserve the balances of the country”.

Updated: March 21, 2022, 1:10 PM