Legal move over Lebanon’s missing millions 'just the start'

Group that brought down Rifaat Al Assad calls for international investigation into Lebanon’s plundered wealth

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 11, 2019 Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh gestures during a press conference at the bank's headquarters in Beirut on November 11, 2019. Riad Salame and four of his relatives are targeted by a complaint in France from the NGO Sherpa and a Lebanese collective who accuse them of having illegally hidden suspected funds in Europe, the two associations announced on May 3, 2021.  / AFP / JOSEPH EID

A legal complaint in France accusing Lebanon’s central bank governor Riad Salameh and his associates of funnelling hundreds of millions of euros out of the country is just a small part of a much bigger scandal, activists say.

Two groups have filed statements to French prosecutors accusing the governor, members of his family and close associates of enriching themselves by using shell companies in secretive locations to buy luxury property in France.

The complaint lists nearly 20 senior Lebanese politicians and suggests that bank owners and shareholders could also be targeted in the future, according to reports of the leaked 81-page dossier.

Mr Salameh has claimed that he was independently wealthy before taking up his post as central bank governor in 1993 and said he was then worth $23 million. “I have also declared that my properties in France were acquired prior to being governor,” the former Merrill Lynch banker told Reuters.

The action by Sherpa, which specialises in fighting financial crime, is based on identifying “hundreds and hundreds of millions” of euros linked to the Salameh clan, sources close to the case say.

Work by Sherpa was key to the conviction of Rifaat Al Assad, the uncle of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, for using looted national riches to build a vast European property portfolio.

The group also was instrumental in providing evidence that convicted the vice-president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin Obiang, who had a lavish lifestyle in France, owning a string of properties and luxury cars.

The focus on plundered assets was sparked 15 years ago following claims by French activists that 23 dictators, former dictators and their families had squirrelled away $200 billion in assets in Western countries.

The latest case involving Mr Salameh is significantly more complex but officials at Sherpa said the “wind had changed”, with France more determined to bring allegedly corrupt senior officials to book. French MPs earlier this year backed a new law that would allow seized assets to be repatriated to the countries from where they were looted.

The Sherpa claim is the second lodged in France by groups campaigning to expose years of corruption and mismanagement in Lebanon.

Complaints have also been filed in Switzerland and the UK where law enforcement agencies are carrying out a preliminary assessment of a string of properties said to be connected to the Salameh clan.

The Swiss Attorney General's office said in January that it was investigating "aggravated money laundering in connection with possible embezzlement" to the detriment of the Lebanese central bank, or Banque du Liban.

Sherpa wants an international investigation of an alleged conspiracy to launder money, receive laundered money, commit fraud and engage in fraudulent commercial practices, among other activities.

Mr Salameh, who owns a luxury seafront villa in Antibes on the French Riviera, has rejected the figures put forward by his accusers. The case also includes Mr Salameh’s brother Raja, his son Nady and an associate at the central bank, Marianne Houwayek.

The claim comes as Mr Salameh is at the centre of tackling Lebanon’s worst financial crisis in three decades.

Lebanon has been mired in crisis since 2019 with its currency losing more than 85 per cent of its value against the US dollar.

Banks have blocked most transfers abroad and cut access to deposits as dollars have grown scarce. The meltdown has dragged down the currency, prompted a sovereign default and fuelled widespread poverty.

"At the end of this affair, France will have to ensure that ill-gotten funds will be returned to serve the general interest, improve the living conditions of the Lebanese, strengthen the rule of law and fight against corruption," Sherpa said.

France’s National Financial Prosecutor has yet to respond to the complaint lodged on April 30.