Lebanon: “2023 Will Be The Year of Riad Salameh’s Trial”

Alia Ibrahim

“He will not be tried in Beirut. That is almost a settled matter. It may be a trial in absentia, if he refuses to comply. But he will not be able to avoid being tried in Europe.”

A few months. At most. That is the time separating Riad Salameh, Governor of the Lebanese Central Bank, from being prosecuted before a European court. Local and international sources told Daraj that the 72-year-old will not escape his fate, as an 18-member European delegation began hearing witnesses in Beirut, as part of their investigation into the banker’s alleged acts of money laundering and embezzlement. 

“2023 will be the year of Riad Salameh’s trial,” one European source told Daraj confidently. “He will not be tried in Beirut. That is almost a settled matter. It may be a trial in absentia, if he refuses to comply. But he will not be able to avoid being tried in Europe.”

The team of European investigators represent simultaneous inquiries in France, Germany and Luxembourg into Salameh’s financial and real estate dealings during his near 30-year reign at the helm of the Lebanese Central Bank (BDL), which culminated in the collapse of the country’s financial system. 

While in Lebanon it is often said that the European “files” are devoid of any evidence that could condemn Salameh, our sources claim that public prosecutors in the countries investigating the alleged corruption have in fact established a “near complete” file.

This includes the embezzlement of $326 million, which the BDL transferred to accounts of the Swiss Forry company, owned by Riad Salameh’s brother Raja. These transfers first came to light in April 2021 following a legal request submitted by the Swiss attorney general in January of that same year.

Information from various sources now indicate that Forry transferred more than $207 million to five Lebanese banks: BankMed, Credit Libanais, Audi, Saradar and Banque Misr Liban. The “mysterious transfers” are “pivotal” to the European investigations.

The European team in Lebanon reviewed documents, including “transfer records made by Raja Salameh.” Well-informed banking and judicial sources told Daraj that the Forry transfers were mostly to Lebanese accounts “belonging to Riad Salameh and people in his inner circle.”

This contradicts Salameh’s testimony before Lebanese Attorney General Jean Tannous on August 5, 2021, in which he claimed the BDL funds transferred to Forry were based on a “signed contract” to provide “financial services related to managing the Lebanese debt in foreign currency in exchange for a commission.” 

Human rights activists emphasize the importance of the European delegation having access to all records of the Special Investigation Commission (SIC). However, the financial unit at the heart of Lebanon’s Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) regime is headed by Salameh himself. And he cannot be trusted to disclose any sensitive information voluntarily. 

That much is clear from the way the SIC dealt with Tannous at an earlier stage. As part of his investigation between April 2021 and June 2022, the attorney general had requested the commission to lift the veil of banking secrecy regarding Raja Salameh’s accounts in order to identify the beneficiaries of the Forry transfers. 

The SIC at the time did not respond, which prompted Tannous to raid the banks. Prime Minister Najib Mikati then intervened, threatening to resign or dismiss Lebanon’s chief Prosecutor General Ghassan Oweidat. Mikati even accused the security forces supporting Tannous of doing “what Israel did not do.” 

Thus the judicial process was halted, Tannous restrained and the commission’s books, protected by banking secrecy and political clout, remained firmly closed. It is still uncertain whether the European investigators will have access to the SIC records.  

The European investigations mainly focus on whether the funds with which Salameh bought real estate worth over $120 million in, among other countries, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, can be considered “clean.” As these purchases are suspected to be part of a money laundering scheme, it is of crucial importance to know who the beneficiaries of the Forry transfers are. 

Salameh’s real estate shopping spree in Europe was previously investigated by Daraj and the Organized Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP)

“No commissions were paid regarding any real estate activities carried out by the Fawry company,” wrote Emirati newspaper The National based on a leaked report signed by French investigative judge Aude Buresi. According to her: “The transfers’ only beneficiaries were Riad Salameh, and those close to him, without knowledge of the BDL.” 

The National report mentioned several successive financial transfers through different people in different countries, which raises suspicions of money laundering.

Daraj did not see any details or evidence regarding the transfers. However, various banking sources confirmed that the five concerned Lebanese banks, in accordance with the law, have provided information that proves Salameh, and those close to him, were the transfers’ beneficiaries

Sources close to the investigation conducted by the European delegation said the current path was very positive, despite fears of a return to the “procrastination and creation of complications” approach of old.

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