Stakes are high as EU investigators plan Beirut trip over Salameh case

Public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat says the European delegation's trip does not 'prejudice Lebanon’s sovereignty'

Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh. AFP
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A European delegation of investigators is scheduled to visit Lebanon this month as part of a corruption investigation into embattled central bank governor Riad Salameh.

It will be the first time a joint visit has taken place Lebanon, a significant step forward in a cross-country investigation and setting high expectations in terms of co-operation between the Lebanese and foreign judiciaries.

At least six European countries are investigating Riad Salameh and his entourage for the alleged embezzlement of more than $330 million from the central Banque du Liban (BDL) through a contract awarded to his brother Raja’s company, Forry Associates (Forry).

BDL directed Forry to sell its financial products (certificates of deposit, Eurobonds and treasury bills) under a brokerage contract signed in 2002 by Riad Salameh.

But inspectors suspect that Forry, which is registered in the Virgin Islands, is a shell company created only to channel embezzled funds, essentially to Europe, where the governor and his entourage own real estate worth millions.

Both brothers deny any wrongdoing.

European courts have set up an international investigative team to exchange information because the case involves a multilayered set-up of companies and transactions across several countries.

The European delegation, which includes judicial officials and investigators from Luxembourg, France and Germany, is part of this joint effort. According to two informed sources, the delegation is looking to hear from about 20 people related to the Salameh case and gain access to pertinent documents.

In March, the joint investigation led authorities from France, Germany and Luxembourg to freeze €120 million worth of assets belonging to Mr Salameh and his entourage in several countries.

Representatives for France’s National Financial Prosecutor’s Office and for the Public Prosecutor in Munich said they did not wish to comment on the matter due to continuing investigations. The spokesman for the Luxembourg judicial authority did not respond to requests for comment.

Lebanon's Central Bank building in Beirut.  Reuters

No prejudice to Lebanon’s sovereignty

The trip triggered concern over a potential breach of Lebanon’s sovereignty. The Lebanese daily Al Akhbar echoed this position in an article last week saying “Europeans entered a new phase of exercising direct tutelage over the Lebanese constitutional institutions".

But it appears that the Lebanese judiciary will keep full authority over the whole process.

“There is no prejudice to Lebanon’s sovereignty," Lebanon's top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat told The National. The “the rights of these countries”, he said, falls within the United Nations Convention against Corruption ratified by Lebanon in 2009, which regulates international co-operation in criminal matters.

According to Article 46 of the convention, “mutual legal assistance shall be afforded to the fullest extent possible under relevant laws, treaties, agreements and arrangements of the requested state”, and can include “taking evidence or statements from persons”.

It means that the requested state can refuse legal assistance if it considers the request to be against its law.

Mr Oueidat ended up agreeing to the European request, on two conditions. Because Lebanese law does not allow “any external authority to exercise investigative powers”, people will be heard “upon their approval” and “in the presence of the assigned Lebanese judge”, he wrote on September 29 to the head of the Munich prosecutor's office in a letter seen by The National.

A test for the Lebanese judiciary?

In this context, the European delegation's access to witnesses and documents relies largely on the co-operation from the Lebanese judiciary.

“The European investigators have no enforcement power,” a diplomatic source confirmed.

The source said these trips are “highly regulated”, and that hearings will be carried out through a Lebanese judge, who will receive the questions from the foreign side.

“But Lebanon's approval of the trip is a very positive sign,” the source said, while acknowledging “uncertain outcomes”.

Two main elements raise concerns about the trip's success.

First, the Lebanese co-operation with foreign judiciary on the Salameh fraud investigation to date has been piecemeal.

“It seems difficult, even impossible to obtain the account information of Riad Salameh and Raja Salameh from Lebanese banks, although it has been asked through a legal mutual request to Lebanon,, said French investigative judge Aude Buresi in an attachment order seen by The National, mentioning “a context where banking secrecy can only be lifted by the central bank's special investigation commission”.

These accounts are important because it is alleged that most of Forry’s commissions were transferred to Raja Salameh’s personal bank accounts in Lebanon. His banking data might reveal the identity of alleged accomplices who benefited from these transfers.

In a move to increase pressure around information sharing, Judge Buresi met Mr Oueidat and other Lebanese prosecutors at a Beirut courthouse in May.

After her visit, the central bank's special investigation commission handed over the account information on Raja Salameh from his Lebanese account to Mr Oueidat. The Lebanese judiciary did not send the banking data to the French judges, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Another pitfall could be the imbroglio surrounding the stalled local investigation into allegations of embezzlement at the central bank involving $300 million opened in 2021.

After the conclusion of an 18-month preliminary investigation in Lebanon, Mr Oueidat referred Riad Salameh's case to the Beirut public prosecutor Ziad Abou Haidar, who refused to implement Mr Oueidat’s order to prosecute the central bank governor and his entourage, effectively stopping the case.

Access to the file could be made complex for European investigators amid confusion surrounding the judge presiding over the case.

But Lebanon's room for manoeuvre is slim.

“It is a test for the Lebanese judiciary”, said Karim Daher, a Facti panellist and international lawyer.

“But Lebanon will have to co-operate to some extent. There could be political, judicial and financial consequences that the country cannot afford, such as sanctions, the end of the international aid, or, in case the Europeans consider the situation a violation of [EU] norms and rules against money laundering, a ban from their banking system,” he added.

Updated: January 06, 2023, 9:31 AM