European prosecutors seize assets worth $132m in Riad Salameh probe

France, Germany and Luxembourg involved in money-laundering investigation

Lebanon's Central Bank governor Riad Salameh has had some of his assets in Europe seized, a criminal justice source confirmed. Reuters

European investigators have frozen properties and bank accounts worth about $130 million linked to a money-laundering investigation into Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh.

The assets, allegedly connected to Mr Salameh and four others suspected of embezzling $330m, were seized in France, Germany, Luxembourg, Monaco and Belgium.

Swiss prosecutors suspect Mr Salameh of having embezzled the money through British Virgin Islands company Forry Associates, which is managed by his brother Raja.

They allege that some of this money was transferred to Switzerland, then back to Lebanese bank accounts in his brother’s name before it was used to buy assets including luxury property in Europe. At least four other countries, including France, Germany and Luxembourg, are also investigating the governor.

Anti-corruption campaigners said the operation was a "significant step" and clears the way for Mr Salameh to be questioned about the source of the funds to buy the properties.

Zena Wakim, a lawyers for Swiss foundation Accountability Now, which issued legal complaints in France, the UK and Switzerland, said the seized assets represented a small amount of the European property portfolio linked to the central banker.

"He will have to explain in a very detailed way where the money comes from and will have to show banking transfers and records," she said.

Eurojust, an EU agency which co-ordinated the operation, declined to confirm the identity of the suspects after a series of seizures.

But a criminal justice source confirmed it was connected to the Salameh investigation with the sums allegedly stolen over two decades, from 2002.

It is understood that investigators also looked at properties and accounts in other jurisdictions, including Jersey, in the Channel Islands between the UK and France. Authorities in Jersey refused to confirm or deny to The National whether they are investigating Mr Salameh's assets.

The raid came in the same week that a Lebanese judge confirmed she had charged Mr Salameh and his brother with illicit enrichment.

Raja was detained after the judge questioned him about his alleged role in helping Riad to launder money through European property deals.

Riad, governor of the Banque du Liban since 1993, did not attend a hearing scheduled for Monday, and judge Ghada Aoun charged him in his absence.

The charges come after a complaint by a group of lawyers last month that accused the Salamehs of money laundering, illicit enrichment and squandering public funds.

On Friday, authorities in Germany seized two properties in Munich and one in Hamburg worth a combined $31m. Shares in a property company in Duesseldorf were also held. Further assets of $8m were seized throughout Germany.

In France, authorities seized two property complexes with a combined value of $18m along with accounts holding $53m and a building in Brussels, Belgium. Another $12m was seized in bank accounts in Luxembourg, said Eurojust.

“Despite the outcome of the action day, the suspects in the main investigation are assumed to be innocent until they have been proven guilty, according to law,” the Eurojust statement said.

Mr Salameh has repeatedly denied accusations of money laundering and illicit enrichment. He has said his personal fortune came from a past salary as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch and from his inheritance.

The governor has strong political support in Lebanon despite increasing pressure from the money-laundering investigations in Europe. No charges have been issued outside of Lebanon.

Updated: March 28, 2022, 3:58 PM
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