France issues arrest warrant for Lebanon -News

BEIRUT — A French investigating judge issued an international arrest warrant for the embattled Lebanese central bank chief on Tuesday after he was not questioned in France on corruption charges, a Western diplomat said.

Longtime central bank chief Riad Salameh was due to appear before French prosecutors on Tuesday as part of an ongoing European investigation. Lebanese officials have yet to confirm receipt of the arrest warrant or comment on the developments.

The Western diplomats who confirmed the warrant spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Chanez Mensous, a lawyer for the French anti-corruption NGO Sherpa, which joined other groups in filing a preliminary legal complaint against Salameh and his associates in May 2021, also confirmed that an arrest warrant had been issued.

Shortly after, Salameh issued a statement in response saying he would appeal the decision, calling it a “clear violation”. He also criticized the French judicial process, saying some classified information about the case had been leaked to the media.

A Eurojust team from France, Germany and Luxembourg, which has been conducting a corruption probe into a string of financial crimes, has accused Salameh and a long list of associates from Lebanon’s central bank, as well as Lebanese commercial banks and audit firms. The charges include $330 million in illicit enrichment and money laundering.

Salameh, 72, who has held the post for nearly 30 years, has repeatedly denied all allegations against him. He insisted that his wealth came from his previous job as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch, inherited property and investments.

In March 2022, three European governments froze over $130 million in assets related to the investigation. During a March visit to Lebanon, a European delegation questioned Salameh about Lebanon’s central bank’s assets and investments outside the country, the Paris apartment owned by the governor and his brother Raja Salameh’s brokerage firm, Forry Associates Ltd.

Riad Salameh never received a summons from Paris, despite repeated attempts to serve it, according to a senior Lebanese judicial official. A Lebanese judge sent notices to Salameh several times over the past two weeks, but each time they were returned because the governor was not at the central bank to receive notices, the official said. The judicial officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Salame’s whereabouts were unknown on Tuesday, and the central bank did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Salame’s absence from Paris.

The date for Tuesday’s hearing was set last month after Lebanon lifted a travel ban on Salame, who is also being investigated at home. Amid the Lebanese investigation, Beirut prosecutor Raja Hamoush charged Salameh, his brother and a close associate with corruption, including embezzlement, forging documents, in late February , illicit enrichment, money laundering and violation of tax laws.

Salameh, once hailed as the guardian of Lebanon’s financial stability, is increasingly being blamed for the country’s financial collapse. Many say he contributed to the economic crisis that has impoverished three-quarters of Lebanon’s 6 million people.

Lebanon’s banks have since been battered, with millions struggling with soaring inflation, high unemployment and a chaotic cash economy. The cash economy accounts for nearly 46 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to a World Bank report released Tuesday, as officials delayed implementing key economic reforms demanded by the international community to bring the economy back to life.

Lebanese Deputy Prime Minister Sadshami criticized Lebanese politicians and “vested interest groups” for obstructing reforms and lacking a sense of urgency to resolve the crisis, saying that “the behavior of the traditional economic class is like living on another planet.”

Salameh’s term ends in July, and while there is no apparent successor, the veteran governor said in a television interview that he plans to step down.

Separately, lawyers representing Salameh, his brother and close associate Marianne Hoayek filed a plea this week in Beirut to suspend the European probe until Lebanon’s own probe into the governor is completed.

Another Lebanese judicial official said the defense team argued that this would ensure the proper administration of justice, while parallel European investigations violated Lebanese sovereignty. They also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the media.

Nadim Houry, head of the Arab Reform Initiative, a Paris-based think tank, said he saw the latest actions by Salameh and Lebanon’s political and financial leaders as an attempt to thwart the European investigation.

Salame “remains protected by a political class closely linked to the Lebanese judiciary,” Houry said. “They know they cannot manipulate the French judicial process like they did in Lebanon.”

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