Stephanie Saliba's detention triggers controversy in Lebanon

Actress taken in for questioning only two days after returning to the country

The Lebanese judiciary is seeking to establish whether the actress Stephanie Saliba, pictured, was bought gifts by Riad Salameh with money from public funds.. AFP
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Lebanese actress Stephanie Saliba's detention for questioning over alleged embezzlement by the country's central bank governor has sparked controversy in Lebanon.

Saliba, who was questioned and released on Friday, is said to be a close acquaintance of Riad Salameh, the long-serving chief of the Banque du Liban, who is suspected of siphoning more than $300 million and €5 million from its coffers with the help of his brother, Raja Salameh.

The Lebanese judiciary is trying to determine if Mr Salameh used some of the money to buy gifts and luxury properties for the actress.

Saliba, who has starred in popular TV series such as Above the Clouds and Moment of Silence, has 2.3 million followers on Instagram.

She returned from abroad on Wednesday evening but was not arrested on arrival at Beirut's airport despite a search warrant issued by the judge leading the investigation into Mr Salameh, Ghada Aoun, several weeks ago.

"This was clearly a move to protect her," said lawyer Wadih Akl, a civil party in cases related to Mr Salameh.

Mr Akl is also a member of the political bureau of the Free Patriotic Movement, a party founded by Michel Aoun, the former president whose term ended in October and who has been openly critical of Mr Salameh.

Media allegations

Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar alleged that caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati directly intervened to stop Saliba's detention, which his press office quickly denied.

On Friday, the financial prosecutor Ali Ibrahim brought Saliba in for questioning and transferred her to Ms Aoun, who released her in the evening of the same day.

Mr Akl said this was a procedural mistake which officials tried to make up for but "she should have been directly transferred to Ms Aoun upon her arrival".

The Lebanese General Security denied any wrongdoing. "The Financial Public Prosecution was contacted because the charge mentioned in the search warrant is money laundering," it said.

The security agency said there was no mention of "any judge or prosecutor who should have been contacted in such cases".

Ms Aoun issued a statement on Monday in which she dismissed any suggestion of error on her part.

"Whenever I take steps forward in sensitive cases, the media, who are paid, tries to confront me with empty lies and statements," she said. "It is not surprising because those whom I am prosecuting have money and influence. It is a vast corrupt system."

Ms Aoun was appointed as judge by Mr Aoun in 2017.

Mr Salameh publicly accused her of political bias, a position widely echoed by some local media outlets.

The central bank governor is also under investigation for alleged financial wrongdoing in at least five European countries.

Mr Salameh has headed the Banque du Liban since 1993 and was once praised as the best central bank governor in the Arab world. However, his actions have come under increasing scrutiny since late 2019 after the economy began sliding into a deep crisis that is widely blamed on decades of corruption and cronyism among the country's elite.

Ms Aoun opened an investigation into Mr Salameh after civil society groups filed a lawsuit against him last December on charges of illegal enrichment, money laundering and forgery of official documents.

In March, Ms Aoun charged Mr Salameh and his brother Raja with illicit enrichment.

Mr Salameh failed to show up at several interrogation sessions but his brother was held for nearly two months before being released on bail of about 100 billion Lebanese pounds ($3.7 million).

The brothers deny allegations of corruption, saying no public funds were embezzled. Mr Salameh has said the investigations are part of a politically motivated campaign to make him a scapegoat for the crisis. He said his fortune was legally acquired and came from his inheritance and investments he made before he became central bank governor.

Updated: December 12, 2022, 4:05 PM