What is Lebanon's Mecattaf case and why is Riad Salameh set to be quizzed?

Mount Lebanon First investigating judge confirms to 'The National' that hearing for Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh will be held on April 3

'Depositors' Outcry' association put up a banner from a protest against the freezing of bank accounts in Lebanon. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Another judicial case involving embattled Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh has recently caught public attention in Lebanon. The Mecattaf money transfer company investigation involves allegations of money laundering, corruption and influence peddling.

In the latest development, Mount Lebanon First investigating judge Nicolas Mansour has set hearings on April 3 for Mr Salameh and several others, the judge confirmed on Monday to The National.

The President of the Banking Control Commission, Maya Dabbagh; staff of Mecattaf; chief executive of the Lebanese bank SGBL, Antoun Sehnaoui; and employees of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) which is Mecataff's audit company, will also face hearings.

The case, marked by the death of Mecattaf's chief executive from a heart attack in the midst of the proceedings, has made the headlines several times following a slew of dramatic turns of events amid strong political and judicial pressure.

SGBL, Mr Salameh and Mecattaf Group have denied any wrongdoing.

But little has been written on the actual facts.

Here is what we know so far.

How did the case start?

The case started with a lawsuit filed in September 2020 from Mouttahidoun, an association of lawyers seeking to fight corruption, against Riad Salameh, SGBL and its chief executive Antoun Sehnaoui, and four of Lebanon's main exchangers including Mecattaf, for “money laundering crimes resulting from currency trading operations with the intent of exposure to the national currency”.

“The case kicked off with a violation of the cabinet decision to back the Lebanese pound”, said Mouttahidoun founder Rami Ollaik.

A year into the steep economic crisis, which has plunged more than 80 per cent of the Lebanese population into poverty since 2019, the central bank started to sell dollars at a preferential exchange rate, which was supposed to benefit importers and the general public, in a bid to support the national currency.

Yet, the measure had at the time little effect and failed to stop the collapse of Lebanon's national currency, which has now lost 98 per cent of its value against the dollar.

“The Lebanese pound kept plummeting: despite the massive dollars injection in the market, there were no tangible effects, so we wondered, where did the money go?” Mr Ollaik said.

He said that after further investigation, his collective found that BDL's dollars injections were not “benefitting the general public” but that the money was diverted in collusion with the central bank “in the hand of connected money exchangers and big banks, including SGBL”.

He said the money was then “transferred abroad via Mecattaf”, while Lebanese depositors were locked out of their savings as banks imposed drastic restrictions on transfers and withdrawals at the start of the crisis.

What are the charges?

The file was then referred to Mount Lebanon prosecutor Ghada Aoun, who investigated the case for months and ordered an audit of the company's records.

According to the investigation's findings, the bank SGBL allegedly transferred via Mecattaf $1.017 billion in 2019 and 2020, and its CEO $17 million “with the facilitation of (...) the Governor of the Banque du Liban, Riad Salameh”, “exploiting the information that the national currency would drop,” Ms Aoun wrote in an order seen by The National.

Riad Salameh “colluded with SGBL and the company Mecattaf to commit illicit acts as they intentionally harmed the national currency and economy,” the order sheet said.

Her investigation also uncovered alleged financial wrongdoing beyond the initial scope. From 2015 to 2019, experts could not identify the source of $4.3 billion transferred abroad by Mecattaf, over a total of $13.3 billion.

“The judiciary started its investigation with our lawsuit based on suspicions of financial wrongdoing at the beginning of the economic crisis, but ended up unveiling larger financial crimes,” said Mr Ollaik.

Ms Aoun charged Mr Salameh with money laundering as well as corruption and abuse of power; Mecattaf, SGBL and Antoun Sehnaoui, with money laundering; President of the BCC Maya Dabbagh with breach of professional duty; and PwC with false statements and concealing information.

“I send my investigation to Judge Mansour, who is now in charge”, confirmed Ms Aoun to The National.

Based on the questioning of the suspects, Mr Mansour can either close the case or decide to maintain charges, leading to the opening of a trial.

Why is the case sensitive?

The case turned into a tug of war between Ms Aoun and Lebanon's top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, which was seen as another evidence of the high politicisation of Lebanon's judiciary.

Ms Aoun is seen as an ally of former president and Free Patriotic Movement founder Michel Aoun, with some accusing her of serving his agenda.

She has, at least publicly, advocated for combating corruption within the financial world, and is leading several investigations into banks and charged Mr Salameh with illicit enrichment in another case in March 2022.

How Lebanon's central bank governor allegedly embezzled millions

How Lebanon's central bank governor allegedly embezzled millions

Mr Oueidat, on the other hand, is regarded as a being closely associated with the financial and political elites.

In April 2021, Mr Oueidat tried to remove her from the case, sparking outrage which led to clashes between supporters from both sides.

Despite the country’s highest judicial body reiterating that she abide by Ms Oueidat's order, she dramatically forced her way into the Mecattaf's offices in Beirut to collect evidence.

For Lebanese watchdog Legal Agenda, the political exploitation of the case, which is considered a “judicial uprising” for Ms Aoun's supporters and a “mutiny” for her opponents, has obscured the actual facts, in an “effort by the ruling powers to suppress the case and avoid opening Pandora’s box”.

Updated: March 07, 2023, 9:28 AM