French lawyers set sights on 'Lebanese kleptocrats' as Salameh investigation nears end

Other inquiries into figures who played a major role in corruption, embezzlement, tax evasion and money laundering will soon come to the fore, they tell The National

Riad Salameh at his office in the Lebanese capital Beirut, pictured in 2021. AFP
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Two French lawyers who initiated legal action against Riad Salameh told The National on Wednesday that the conclusion of the investigation into the Lebanese Central Bank governor is imminent.

But other inquiries against pivotal figures who played a major role in corruption, embezzlement, tax evasion and money laundering will soon come to the fore, they said.

French lawyers William Bourdon and Amelie Lefebvre lodged a complaint before the French National Financial Prosecutor's Office on behalf of the anti-corruption NGO Sherpa in 2021, along with the Collectif des Victimes des Pratiques Frauduleuses et Criminelles au Liban. Mr Salameh is suspected of having embezzled more than $330 million in public funds.

The complaint led to the opening of an investigation, entrusted to French judge Aude Buresi. It quickly gained momentum, resulting in the creation of an international investigative team involving Germany and Luxembourg.

In May, the French judiciary issued an arrest warrant for Riad Salameh, followed by an Interpol red notice.

The French judge previously ordered the indictment of two individuals involved in the central bank embezzlement scandal: Mr Salameh's romantic partner, Anna Kosakova, and Lebanese banker Marwan Kheireddine, who is accused of having falsified banking documents to account for the governor's wealth.

“At this pace, we hope that the investigation will be concluded within a time frame of 10 to 12 months, with the investigative judges in France issuing an indictment order, paving the way for a trial next year”, Ms Lefebvre told The National.

Mr Bourdon said the Salemeh case is “unparalleled in recent history”.

“A central bank governor, who is entrusted with safeguarding the public good and the general interest, being implicated to such an extent in the web of corruption is truly unheard of”, he said.

As the European probes are gathering pace, with Germany issuing an arrest warrant for Mr Salameh just days after the French warrant, “fear is starting to change sides”, Mr Bourdon said.

Sources had confirmed to The National that a few individuals close to the Salameh entourage have started to speak to investigators.

“The cycle of omerta and silence is gradually being shattered. As the pressure intensifies, those involved in the crimes have to chose: to co-operate and seek redemption, or to face the consequences along with the rest”, Mr Bourdon said.

'Time is running out'

They also highlighted the significant role played by whistle-blowers in the investigation through a dedicated a secure platform called ALB – Alert Lebanon.

“We have received useful information from anonymous whistle-blowers and we strongly encourage insiders who wish to clean up the banking sector from embezzlement and fraudulent behaviours to come forward”, Ms Lefebvre said.

The French lawyers refuted any claims of scapegoating, a defence commonly employed by Mr Salameh, who has consistently denied any involvement in wrongdoing.

“Mr Salameh's role in creating and managing a system at the state level to embezzle public funds is substantial. But there are other individuals involved, who are also on the radar of judges in Europe”, Mr Bourdon said.

“Time is running out for them”, he added.

The French lawyers said they are documenting additional cases involving “other prominent Lebanese kleptocrats”.

“We are considering filing soon additional complaints against other individuals at the heart of the Lebanese state mafia. And we are not alone in doing so”, Mr Bourdon said.

The lawyers added that “international crime necessitates an international network and highly specialised individuals,” referring to them as the “architects of numbers and law”.

These individuals include legal professionals, auditors and bankers who played a crucial role in these intricate schemes, and “must be held accountable for their actions”, Mr Bourdon said.

Economic collapse

So far, the complaints have focused on money laundering rather than directly addressing the roots of the liquidity crisis and subsequent collapse of the Lebanese economy in 2019.

Mr Bourdon and Ms Lefebvre said they are also considering filing a broader complaint on behalf of depositors to address the massive transfer of billions of dollars abroad at the onset of the crisis.

This primarily benefited politically connected individuals, while ordinary depositors bore the brunt of the crisis, which plunged more than 80 per cent of Lebanese people into poverty and led in the national currency to lose 98 per cent of its value.

The French lawyers said they have already filed a complaint against a Lebanese bank with a subsidiary based in Paris for the fraudulent organisation of insolvency on behalf of two depositors.

They alleged the subsidiary received significant funds from main branch, which came at the expense of depositors in Lebanon while benefiting shareholders.

They are currently awaiting a response from the French court.

Recovering stolen assets

In March, the state of Lebanon became a civil party to the French case after a Lebanese judge filed a complaint there, paving the way for the country to recover the ill-gotten assets if a final conviction is issued.

So far €120 million of assets belonging to Riad Salameh and his entourage has been seized by France, Germany and Luxembourg, in co-ordination with the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Co-operation (Eurojust).

“The 2021 law on ill-gotten assets in France gives the framework for recovering stolen assets, but it requires the Lebanese state to provide guarantees that these funds will be used for projects that contribute to improving the quality of life and not return to networks of corruption”, Ms Lefebvre said.

Other assets could be seized but in other European countries, where Mr Salameh have massive investment. In the UK for instance, the governor and his family own more than 35 million pounds worth of properties.

Theses assets have been seized – but at the request of the French judiciary, and not the British one, which is yet to announce the opening of a probe.

“What are the British authorities doing?“, wondered Mr Bourdon.

“Both Switzerland and the UK have shown reluctance in seizing assets, as it risks killing the golden goose”, he added.

As for the Lebanese investigation, which remains in limbo despite a Lebanese judge charging Mr Salameh, his brother Raja, and one of his assistants with money laundering in March, the two lawyers have little confidence.

“It currently appears to be a smokescreen to create the illusion that the Lebanese authorities are assuming their responsibility”, Mr Bourdon said.

Updated: July 26, 2023, 11:25 AM