BEIRUT: A French investigative judge on Tuesday issued an international arrest warrant for Lebanon’s embattled central bank governor after he didn’t show up for questioning in France on corruption charges, a Western diplomat said.
Longtime central bank Governor Riad Salameh was supposed to appear before French prosecutors on Tuesday as part of an ongoing European probe. Lebanese officials have not confirmed receipt of the arrest warrant or commented on the development.
The Western diplomat who confirmed the warrant spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not cleared to speak to media outlets.
Chanez Mensous, a lawyer at the French anti-corruption non-govermmental organization Sherpa, which alongside other organizations filed initial legal complaints against Salameh and associates back in May 2021, also confirmed the warrant was issued.
Salameh responded with a statement shortly afterward, saying he will appeal the decision calling it a “clear legal violation.” He also criticized the French judicial process, saying that some confidential information about the case was leaked to the media.
A European judicial team from France, Germany and Luxembourg has been conducting a corruption investigation into an array of financial crimes they allege were committed by Salameh and a long list of his associates from Lebanon’s central bank, as well as Lebanese commercial banks and auditing companies. The allegations include illicit enrichment and laundering of $330 million.
Salameh, 72, who has held his post for almost 30 years, has repeatedly denied all allegations against him. He has insisted that his wealth comes from his previous job as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch, inherited properties, and investments.
The three European governments in March 2022 froze over $130 million in assets linked to the probe. During a visit to Lebanon in March, the European delegation questioned Salameh about the Lebanese central bank’s assets and investments outside the country, a Paris apartment — which the governor owns — and his brother Raja Salameh’s brokerage firm Forry Associates Ltd.
According to a senior Lebanese judicial official, Riad Salameh never received his summons from Paris, despite several attempts to deliver it. The official said a Lebanese judge sent the notice to Salameh several times over the past two weeks, but it was returned each time because the governor was not present at the central bank to receive the notice. The judicial official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not cleared to speak to the press.
Salameh’s whereabouts were not known and the central bank did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Salameh’s failure to show up in Paris.
The date for Tuesday’s hearing was set last month and Lebanon lifted a travel ban on Salameh, who is also being investigated at home. In the probe in Lebanon, Beirut’s Public Prosecutor Raja Hamoush in late February charged Salameh, his brother and a close associate with corruption, including embezzling public funds, forgery, illicit enrichment, money-laundering and violation of tax laws.
Once hailed as the guardian of Lebanon’s financial stability, Salameh is being increasingly blamed for the country’s financial meltdown. Many say he precipitated the economic crisis, which has plunged three-quarters of Lebanon’s population of 6 million into poverty.
Lebanon’s banks have since been battered, as millions struggle from soaring inflation, high unemployment and a messy cash-based economy. According to a World Bank report released Tuesday, the cash economy makes up almost 46% of the country’s GDP, as officials stall on implementing critical economic reforms demanded by the international community to make its economy viable again.
Lebanese Deputy Prime Minister Saade Shami criticized Lebanon’s politicians and “vested interest groups” for obstructing reforms and for their lack of urgency in resolving the crisis, saying the “traditional economic class behave as if they live on another planet.”
Salameh’s term ends in July and while there is no apparent successor, the veteran governor has said in television interviews that he plans to step down.
Separately, lawyers representing Salameh, his brother and close associate Marianne Hoayek filed requests this week in Beirut demanding the suspension of the European probe until Lebanon’s own investigation of the governor is completed.
Another Lebanese judicial official said the defense team argued this would ensure proper administration of justice and that a parallel European probe violates Lebanon’s sovereignty. They, too, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the press.
Nadim Houry, who heads the Paris-based think tank Arab Reform Initiative, said he believes Salameh’s latest actions and those of Lebanese political and financial leaders, are attempts to stall the European probe.
Salameh “still enjoys protection from the political class, which is deeply connected to the judiciary in Lebanon,” Houry said. “They know they cannot manipulate the judicial process in France the way they do in Lebanon.”