Riad Salameh faces second round of questioning in Lebanese embezzlement case

The embattled central bank chief was quizzed for three hours on Friday as part of an international graft inquiry

Lebanese protesters demonstrating against the policies of Lebanon's central bank governor, Riad Salameh. AFP
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Lebanon’s central bank governor Riad Salameh was quizzed for three hours on Friday in a second round of questioning at the Beirut Palace of Justice with European investigators.

It comes after five hours of questioning on Thursday as part of a cross-country investigation into the alleged embezzlement of more than $300 million from the central bank involving at least six European countries.

“A total of 196 questions were asked”, a judicial source told The National.

"The governor was co-operative," they added.

Beirut's presiding judge Charbel Abou Samra asked questions prepared and presented by the EU delegation, which he had reviewed, while the European judges were allowed to attend the session to hear the answers.

The questions were related to the banker's substantial property investments across Europe as well as Forry, the governor's brother's company, which was allegedly used to act as a broker for the central bank, the source said.

Investigators suspect that Forry's purpose was to siphon millions from the central bank by charging commissions on each transaction with commercial banks while not performing any actual services. The funds were then allegedly transferred abroad to fund the purchase of luxurious properties in Europe.

Both brothers have denied any wrongdoing.

Mr Salameh said in a statement published after the hearing that he attended "without" his lawyer, because "he was summoned as a witness, not as a defendant or suspect".

He said that he told the European investigators that “no public funds went to a company owned by his brother.” He also said that no central bank funds entered his personal accounts.

"I have felt, for more than two years, a bad faith and a thirst to initiate proceedings against me," he said, accusing journalists, lawyers, politicians and civil society groups to take part in a "continuous campaign" against him, based on facts that they have "fabricated".

Mr Salameh told Reuters that the Friday hearing was “good”.

The delegation of European officials, including the French judge leading the case, Aude Buresi, arrived on Monday to discuss the cases with Mr Salameh for the first time and present him with their evidence.

Mr Salameh failed to appear for questioning on Wednesday leaving senior judicial officials waiting for hours.

He put forward procedural arguments to challenge the hearing's legality, which were dismissed by Mr Abou Samra, who said that the questioning conducted by the Lebanese judge in the presence of foreign officials falls in line with Lebanese law.

Mr Salameh then appeared on Thursday, with his attendance unsure until the last moment.

The delegation of European officials is set to leave on Saturday.

They are expected to come back at the end of April to hear Raja Salameh, the governor's brother, and Marianne Howayek, his assistant, the source has said, before pressing any charges — provided they believe they have enough evidence.

Updated: March 18, 2023, 4:40 AM