European judges question Riad Salameh for five hours in embezzlement case

A second hearing is scheduled for Friday

Riad Salameh failed to attend a hearing scheduled for Wednesday. AP
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European investigators interrogated Lebanon’s embattled central bank governor Riad Salameh on Thursday for five hours, asking more than 100 questions in relation to charges that he embezzled more than $300 million from the central bank with the help of his brother.

Another session is scheduled for Friday.

"The co-operation went smoothly," a source close to the matter confirmed to The National.

It is an important step in the international investigation into Mr Salameh involving at least six European countries because it is the first time foreign judges will confront the bank governor with their evidence.

The delegation of European officials is expected to come back in April to hear Raja Salameh, the governor's brother, the source added, before pressing any charges — provided they feel they have enough evidence.

There was a strong police presence at Beirut's Justice Palace on Thursday morning as he arrived.

Mr Salameh had failed to appear for the scheduled hearing on Wednesday, leaving the European delegation waiting for hours.

His lawyer presented procedural arguments saying the attendance of foreign officials is a breach of Lebanon’s sovereignty.

This argument was dismissed by the assigned Lebanese judge, who rescheduled the hearing for Thursday.

It is the first time foreign judges were able to confront Mr Salameh and present him with their evidence.

The EU officials will be able to watch the Lebanese judge in charge of the case asking their prepared questions, a judicial source said previously.

Lebanon is entrenched in a devastating economic crisis that first became apparent in 2019 and which has been blamed on decades of financial mismanagement and corruption.

Many consider Mr Salameh to have been an engineer of the system that has now collapsed. His is the biggest international case involving a top Lebanese official.

On Wednesday, Judge Helena Iskandar, the president of the cases authority at the ministry of justice and representative of the Lebanese state in the European case, issued charges for money laundering, bribery, forgery, illicit enrichment and tax evasion against Mr Salameh, his brother Raja Salameh and his assistant Marianne Hoayek.

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

Mr Salameh, whose 30-year term is due to end later this year, denies the charges against him. He has said he does not seek to extend his term.

Updated: March 16, 2023, 4:32 PM