Riad Salameh court hearing in Lebanon postponed after no-show

The central bank governor's brother, Raja Salameh, remained in detention on Thursday, a judicial source tells 'The National'

Riad Salameh, 71, has been the head of Banque du Liban for close to three decades. Photo: AP

A Lebanese judge on Thursday postponed questioning of central bank governor Riad Salameh in a corruption case until June after his lawyer attended a hearing in his place, the country's state news agency reported.

Mr Salameh, 71, has been the head of Banque du Liban for close to three decades. He and his brother Raja Salameh, 61, were last week charged with illicit enrichment by a different judge, Ghada Aoun.

The postponement of Riad Salameh's hearing by three months angered activists. Nizar Saghieh of the Legal Agenda watchdog tweeted that it was “contrary to public interest and to holding senior officials accountable“.

Riad Salameh previously failed to appear at hearings ordered by Ms Aoun. Last month, he evaded her attempt to bring him in by force. He has accused Ms Aoun of political bias.

Ms Aoun ordered that Raja Salameh be detained after questioning two weeks ago and transferred the case to Judge Nicolas Mansour. Last week, he issued an arrest warrant against Raja Salameh for money laundering and illicit enrichment, a judicial source said. Raja Salameh has since requested to be released.

Mr Mansour on Thursday set bail of 500 billion Lebanese pounds (about $20m). But Raja Salameh remained in detention as his lawyer Marwan Issa El Khoury made an appeal to reduce the bail. Mr El Khoury said he expected an answer within 24 hours.

Ms Aoun also lodged an appeal against Mr Mansour's decision to release Raja Salameh. The Mount Lebanon Indictment Chamber has no specific time limit to respond to the appeals, said the judicial source, in apparent contradiction to Mr El Khoury's claims. The central bank governor's brother may remain detained for up to four months.

Riad Salameh has repeatedly denied the corruption charges, arguing that he amassed his fortune before his tenure started in 1993. He said he ordered an audit, which showed in November that he had not enriched himself using public funds. The audit is not public.

Lebanon's National News Agency reported that Riad Salameh's lawyer, Shawki Kazan, filed “formal defences” to Mr Mansour on Thursday. The National sent Mr Kazan a request for clarification by text message. He did not respond. An assistant said he was unavailable.

Riad Salameh was a popular figure until Lebanon's financial collapse in 2019. His assets have since come under intense scrutiny, prompting an investigation into alleged money laundering in Switzerland.

Swiss judges suspect the Salameh brothers of embezzling more than $300 million between 2002 and 2014 through a company controlled by Raja Salameh in the British Virgin Islands. Switzerland filed a request for judicial cooperation to Lebanon in November 2020, which The National was able to review. It shows that the Salameh brothers' assets in Switzerland were frozen. The central bank governor's assets in Swiss banks amount to $50m.

The Swiss request triggered an investigation in Lebanon led by Judge Jean Tannous, which was followed by at least four European countries, where associations have also filed complaints against the central bank governor. Riad Salameh still enjoys significant support from Lebanon's political class.

France, Germany and Luxembourg on Monday froze assets worth $132m belonging to the central bank governor and his entourage, the office of the public prosecutor in Munich told The National. EU agency Eurojust, which coordinated the move, did not comment on the identity of the five suspects involved and said that they are presumed innocent.

Ms Aoun charged the Salameh brothers based on a lawsuit filed by a group of Lebanese lawyers who accuse the two men of embezzling public funds to buy luxury real estate in Europe. They largely base this on a series of damaging reports published by French and Swiss media.

Reports also implicate Anna Kosakova, 44, a Ukrainian woman who lives in Paris. She has a 17-year-old daughter who was fathered by Riad Salameh.

French news website Mediapart reported earlier this month that Ms Kosakova rents an office on the Champs Elysees to Banque du Liban. The office is not registered with the French authorities — a breach of French law. The bank allegedly paid €4.8m ($5.3m) in rent between 2010 and 2021.

Ms Kosakova was unable to provide her company's accounts to French police during a raid in October, according to Mediapart.

Updated: March 31, 2022, 4:41 PM