Lebanon charges Central Bank's Riad Salameh with money laundering at no-show hearing

Hearing with EU officials postponed until Thursday as Lebanese judge dismisses legal arguments for no-show

Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh speaks during an interview in Beirut in November. Reuters
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Lebanon's central bank governor Riad Salameh has been hit with fresh charges for money laundering after he failed to appear for questioning and left senior judicial officials and a delegation of European representatives hoping to quiz him on a number of ongoing cases against the embattled financier waiting for hours.

Judge Helena Iskandar, president of the Cases Authority at the Ministry of Justice, issued the charges for money laundering, bribery, forgery, illicit enrichment and tax evasion against Mr Salameh, his brother Raja Salameh and his assistant Marianne Hoayek following his failure to appear at the meeting where she was representing the Lebanese state. She also ordered the state to freeze the trio's assets in the country.

While Lebanese public prosecutors have issued charges and demanded Mr Salameh appear for questioning over accusations he embezzled more than $300 million from Lebanon's central bank, Wednesday's move marks the first money-laundering charges brought against the trio by the Lebanese state. It is an essential step for Lebanon to recover embezzled assets abroad.

A judicial source told The National that Wednesday's charges were not a consequence of the central bank head failing to show up but followed a warning 10 days ago from Judge Iskandar.

Mr Salameh will remain in his role as central bank governor until May.

The European judicial officials were looking to question Mr Salameh in relation to six countries against him in Europe for the alleged embezzlement of more than $300 million.

It would have been the first time foreign judges confronted Mr Salameh and presented him with their evidence.

Mr Salameh's lawyer attended the session and presented a memorandum on the case, objecting to the presiding judge over the presence of European officials.

He claimed that the session was a breach of Lebanese sovereignty because of its conflict with a parallel investigation opened separately in Lebanon, which led to money-laundering charges against the bank governor in February after an 18-month investigation.

This argument was dismissed by Beirut's first investigative judge, Charbel Abou Samra, who is in charge of the local investigation, another judicial source told the National.

Mr Abou Samra had reviewed the questions beforehand to ensure they fell in line with Lebanese law, according to the mutual legal assistance agreement regulated by the UN's Convention against Corruption, ratified by Lebanon in 2009.

This allows a foreign judge to request the assistance of another judge in investigating and obtaining evidence that they are unable to gather on their own.

The Lebanese judge postponed the session until Thursday.

The judicial source told The National that they “think” the governor will attend.

Mr Salameh has maintained his innocence.

It is unclear how the no-show this will affect the European proceedings, as the authorities in the case do not have the prerogative to force him to testify, the source added.

But, if they deem they have enough evidence, they could still press charges in absentia.

The hearing is related to Forry, Raja Salameh’s company, which was supposed to act as a broker for the central bank.

Investigators suspect Forry to be a shell company whose sole purpose was to siphon millions from the central bank by charging commissions on each bank transaction with banks while not performing any actual services.

Updated: March 16, 2023, 7:27 AM