Judge interrogates Lebanese central bank governor's brother Raja Salameh

Raja Salameh came out of the court handcuffed surrounded by police

Lebanese police outside the Palace of Justice in Beirut, where the Salameh brothers were charged. Reuters

A Lebanese judge interrogated Raja Salameh, the brother of embattled central bank governor Riad Salameh, for three hours on Tuesday at the Palace of Justice in Beirut, sources said.

Raja, 61, came out of the court handcuffed shortly before 2pm local time surrounded by policemen who led him away in a car. His lawyer, through whom he has previously denied corruption charges, declined to comment.

Sources said Raja, who was detained on Thursday and has since been charged along with Riad with illicit enrichment, was interrogated by judge Jean Tannous regarding his role in a company based in the British Virgin Islands that he headed called Forry Associates.

Swiss court documents show that it operated as one of several intermediaries of the central bank with local commercial banks on their purchases of government certificates of deposits.

Forry's “only job was to gather all these commissions and fees and redistribute according to the instructions”, Riad told Reuters last month, without specifying what those instructions were.

Lebanon opened an investigation in early 2021 after Switzerland made a request for judicial co-operation, which The National was able to review.

Swiss judges suspect that the Salameh brothers embezzled more than $330 million via Forry’s Swiss bank accounts between 2002 and 2015. A large portion of this sum – $207m – was allegedly then sent to four Lebanese banks, labelled as “private expenses.”

This is the first time that Mr Tannous has interrogated Raja whose brother is facing mounting pressure from the judiciary in Lebanon and abroad.

Mr Tannous's attempt in January to raid the banks mentioned in the Swiss probe was halted at the last minute by public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidate. Reports indicate that Mr Oueidate acted under pressure from Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who has denied intervening in the judicial process.

Raja was detained last week by another Lebanese judge Ghada Aoun in Baabda, south-east of Beirut. Without an arrest warrant, Ms Aoun could not keep Raja in detention for more than four days.

Judicial sources said that she transferred her investigation to Mount Lebanon First Investigative Judge Nicolas Mansour, who will decide whether to keep Raja detained. Raja’s current judicial status remains unclear.

Ms Aoun charged the Salameh brothers on Monday with illicit enrichment. They are presumed innocent.

There was little sympathy for the brothers outside Beirut’s Palace of Justice, where guards, once made aware of Raja’s identity, criticised Lebanon’s political and financial class which they said had “starved its people”. “Do you know how much I make a month today? $40,” said one.

This is about 15 times less than before the collapse of Lebanon’s financial system in 2019. Most of the Lebanese public blames the crisis on the corruption of the country’s ruling class.

Ms Aoun’s charges came as part of an investigation prompted by a complaint filed last month by a group of Lebanese lawyers accusing the two men, as well as a Ukrainian woman who lives in France and has a daughter with Riad, of buying property in Europe using funds transferred from Forry Associates.

Riad, 71, has repeatedly defended himself by referring to an audit of the central bank that exonerates him and which he commissioned in November.

The audit is not public. At least five European countries are investigating the central bank governor for money laundering.

Riad, governor of the Banque du Liban since 1993, remains a crucial member of a government team that has been in talks with the IMF for two years over a much-needed bailout.

He did not attend a hearing scheduled for Monday and Ms Aoun charged him in absentia, Reuters reported.

Raja has since 2012 been a board member of Solidere, a public-private partnership that manages central Beirut.

Updated: March 22, 2022, 3:14 PM