Justice

France opens probe into Lebanese central bank chief's wealth

This file handout photo picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra on 3 June, 2021 shows Lebanon's Central Bank Chief Riad Salameh addressing the media after a meeting with the Lebanese president at the Baabda presidential palace, east of the capital Beirut.
This file handout photo picture provided by the Lebanese photo agency Dalati and Nohra on 3 June, 2021 shows Lebanon's Central Bank Chief Riad Salameh addressing the media after a meeting with the Lebanese president at the Baabda presidential palace, east of the capital Beirut. © AFP/Dalati and Nohra

France has opened a probe into the personal wealth of Riad Salameh, central bank chief in crisis-hit Lebanon, following a similar move by Switzerland. He is suspected of transferring money abroad during a 2019 uprising, when ordinary people were prevented from doing so.

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Paris financial prosecutors have opened a preliminary probe into criminal association and money laundering by Salameh, a source close to the investigation and a judicial source said.

Its findings could shed light onto the origins of the 70-year-old former Merrill Lynch banker's wealth.

In post since 1993 and once hailed by political and business leaders, Salameh has been repeatedly accused by the government of caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab of being responsible for the collapse of the Lebanese pound.

Lebanon has since been hit by an economic crisis which the World Bank says is one of the worst anywhere since the 19th century.

Close to the powerful Hariri family, Salameh has been under investigation for months in Switzerland on suspicion of serious money laundering and embezzlement from the Bank of Lebanon.

He also owns several properties in France and may have transferred money via the country.

One of the criminal complaints that prompted French prosecutors to get involved came from Swiss foundation Accountability Now, daily French newspaper Le Monde reported.

Another was filed by anti-financial crime group Sherpa and by the Collective of Victims of Fraudulent and Criminal Practices in Lebanon, set up by savers devastated by the post-2019 crisis.

The French move signals the start of "a universal mega-investigation across Europe", said William Bourdon and Amelie Lefebvre, lawyers for Sherpa and the savers' collective.

Country on its knees

"Enormous money laundering operations will be examined, which ought to open every nook and cranny of the mafia that has brought Lebanon to its knees," they hope.

Their criminal complaint, seen by French news agency AFP, accuses Salameh and people close to him -- his brother Raja, his son Nadi, a nephew and an aide at the central bank -- of fraudulently building a vast fortune in Europe.

The groups urge the judiciary to investigate massive capital flight from Lebanon since the crisis began, as well as property purchases out of all proportion to the buyers' income and the roles played by financial intermediaries, tax havens and strawmen.

Based especially on reports by Lebanese website Daraj.com and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the plaintiffs believe that Salameh's worldwide total wealth amounts to more than 1.64 billion euros.

He contests that figure, saying his holdings stem from inheritances, his banking career and legitimate investments since taking office in 1993.

The French prosecutors' investigation is the latest in a string of probes into "ill-gotten gains" of foreign leaders -- especially from Africa or the Middle East.

(with AFP)

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