The governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon appeared before a delegation of European investigators in a court in Beirut, where he was confronted for the first time with questions related to allegations of money laundering and embezzlement of public funds .
At least five European countries are investigating accusations that Riad Salameh and his brother Raja Salameh embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars and laundered some of the profits overseas. European teams also traveled to Beirut in January to question central bank officials and heads of some commercial banks in the country.
Riad and Raja Salameh are also being investigated over allegations of corruption in Lebanon. The pair and their associate Marianne Hoayek faced new corruption allegations this week from Judge Helena Iskandar, who is representing the state and overseeing the EU delegation’s investigation. As part of the new charges, the state decided to freeze their assets.
All three strenuously deny all allegations of wrongdoing. Riad Salameh says the international investigations are part of a smear campaign designed to make him the scapegoat for Lebanon’s financial implosion.
Banque du Liban’s Salameh, once famous for keeping Lebanon afloat through years of instability, has come under intense scrutiny since the country’s economy implosed in 2019.
It is the first time he has appeared in court since separate allegations were made against him in Lebanon Last year on illicit enrichment and money laundering.
On Thursday, Lebanese army soldiers and police kept a watchful eye outside the Beirut courthouse as Salameh was interrogated for more than five hours.
According to Lebanese law, Europeans cannot question Salameh directly but must do so through a Lebanese judge, who acts as an intermediary in the investigation.
Legal experts hailed the interrogation as a breakthrough in the arduous quest for responsibility for Lebanon’s economic collapse. Many Lebanese, including activists and opposition MPs, accuse Salameh of mismanaging the country’s finances during his three decades as central bank chief. They also wondered how he amassed his vast personal wealth.
The case opened this week is separate from other lawsuits against Salameh in Lebanon. The Beirut prosecutor last month opened an investigation into Riad and Raja Salameh and Hoayek for corruption, including embezzlement of public funds, forgery, illicit enrichment, money laundering and violation of tax laws.
Salameh’s sixth term as bank governor ends in July and he recently said he would not seek another term. There are also signs that his political support is waning. Acting Prime Minister Najib Mikati, previously a staunch Salameh supporter, said in a recent TV interview that he was not in favor of extending the term of the central bank chief.