Lebanon: Safe Haven for Fugitives

Pascale Sawma
Lebanese Journalist

From Carlos Ghosn to Riad Salemeh, and numerous internationally sanctioned individuals in between, Lebanon seemingly has become a safe haven for people wanted or on the run.

In a recent press interview Carlos Ghosn confidently recounted his escape from Japan and journey to Lebanon. Having been accused of embezzlement by car company Nissan, he was detained by the Japanese authorities in 2019. However, Ghosn managed to secure bail and flee the country.

Ghosn came across as a true hero in Lebanese fashion, a scene reminiscent of the “royal” reception banker Marwan Kheireddine recently received upon his return from France where he was investigated for financial crimes.

Now Riad Salameh, Governor of the Lebanese Central Bank (BDL), has been raised on Lebanon’s shoulders as a victim of a cosmic conspiracy. In May, French investigative judge Aud Bourizi issued an international arrest warrant against Salameh after he failed to appear for questioning on corruption charges. 

Salameh stands accused of a string of crimes, including fraud, money laundering, illicit enrichment, as well misappropriating Lebanese funds during his three-decade tenure as BDL Governor. Lebanon has received a Red Notice from Interpol, calling upon the authorities to arrest and extradite Salameh. 

Yet, an extradition is unlikely. Despite Salameh being a key player in the looting of bank deposits in Lebanon, he continues to enjoy key political support shielding him from accountability.

Salameh, along with his former assistant Marianne Hoayek and his brother Raja Salameh, face investigations in Lebanon and at least five European countries for their alleged embezzlement of over $300 million, yet this carries little weight within the realm of Lebanese justice. 

Salameh remains BDL Governor. And reports suggest he will remain so until the election of a new president. Judge Charbel Abu Samra stated he could not locate Salameh anywhere. Nor could the security agencies. Ironically, the Al-Hadath TV channel did manage to find him to conduct an interview.

These particularities are not limited to Salameh, Kheireddine, or Ghosn. In recent years, Lebanon has become a safe haven for fugitives, providing them with the freedom to live their lives, even holding influential positions, while enjoying legal protection. 

218 People Killed 

Those accused of the Beirut Port blast, one of the biggest ever non-nuclear explosions in the world, which claimed the lives of 218 people and injured over 7,000 others on August 4, 2020, remain at large, as they are shielded by partisan, sectarian, parliamentary, and regional immunities.

Initially, Judge Fadi Sawan was assigned the investigation, but he was later dismissed. Judge Tarek Bitar was appointed to replace him, only to be sidelined after he issued indictments against several officials and ministers. 

So, instead of arresting the suspects, the investigative judges were removed, while the families of the victims were subjected to violence during protests demanding justice.

“The evidence currently available also indicates that multiple Lebanese authorities were, at a minimum, criminally negligent under Lebanese law in their handling of the Rhosus’ cargo,” according to the 2021 Human Rights Watch report They Killed Us From The Inside. “The actions and omissions of Lebanese authorities created an unreasonable risk to life.” 

“In addition, evidence strongly suggests that some government officials foresaw the death that the ammonium nitrate’s presence in the port could result in, and tacitly accepted the risk of the deaths occurring,” the report concluded. “Under domestic law, this could amount to the crime of homicide with probable intent, and/or unintentional homicide.” 

The above implicates a number of politicians, including former President Michel Aoun, former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, former Director-General of State Security Major General Tony Saliba, former Lebanese Army Commander General Jean Kahwaji, former Minister of Finance Ali Hassan Khalil, former Minister of Public Works and Transportation Ghazi Zaiter, and former Minister of Public Works and Transportation Youssef Fenianos, among others. 

They were informed about the risks posed by ammonium nitrate but failed to take the necessary measures to protect the people. Yet, until now, no one has been prosecuted.

Salim Ayyash

After 15 years of investigation, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in 2020 finally issued its verdict on the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.  The court convicted Salim Ayyash for his involvement in the crime, while three other suspects – Hussein Hassan Oneissi, Assad Hassan Sabra, and Hassan Habib Merhi – were acquitted due to insufficient evidence.

Yet, Ayyash remains at large under the pretext that he cannot not be found and arrested, just as it apparently proved impossible to find and apprehend Salameh, Fenianos, Khalil and so many others …

US Sanctions 

The haven Lebanon has become furthermore includes numerous individuals sanctioned by the US Treasury Department or the European Union, which includes the brothers Teddy and Raymond Rahme, due to their involvement in “opaque” government tenders and contracts.

The US Treasury Department also sanctioned two Lebanese nationals for their involvement in Captagon smuggling: Noah Zaitar, who is facing dozens of arrest warrants in Lebanon, and Hassan Muhammad Daqqou, who was arrested in 2021 for smuggling Captagon to the Gulf region.

The US also imposed sanctions on Lebanese currency exchanger Hassan Ahmad Moukalled and his company CTEX EXCHANGE. Moukalled stands accused of establishing CTEX as a “financial front company” on behalf of Hezbollah. The sanctions also target Moukalled’s sons Rani and Rayyan. 

Other sanctions target businessmen Jihad Al-Arab and Dany Khoury, MP Jamil Sayyed, and former ministers Ali Khalil and Youssef Fenianos, either for alleged corruption or support of Hezbollah.

The sanctions have been extended to include Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Gebran Bassil due to his alleged involvement in corruption. Ironically, FPM supporters who perceive the indictment of Salameh as a victory seemed to have missed the fact that Bassil is also among those internationally sanctioned.

All of these individuals reside in Lebanon, living their lives freely, doing their suspicious dealings, without fear, and without anyone daring to hold them accountable, at least, not the Lebanese judiciary.

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