A Lebanese judge says she has brought the first charge against Riad Salameh, whose wealth is also being probed by authorities in at least five European countries.
Lebanese Judge Ghada Aoun told various media outlets Monday that she had charged the head of the country’s central bank, Riad Salameh, with illegal enrichment and money laundering during Lebanon’s economic crisis.
It is the first charge brought against the veteran governor. Salameh’s wealth is currently being investigated by authorities in at least five European countries for alleged embezzlement.
Aoun told Reuters and the AP that the charge is linked to purchases and rentals of apartments in Paris, some of it to the central bank, which he had been heading for nearly three decades.
Salameh has denied the charge multiple times, saying he had ordered an audit that showed that public funds were not a source of his wealth. Reports at the time suggested the scrutiny of the audit was hampered by the political establishment.
The banking sector began a two-day strike on Monday to protest recent moves by Lebanon’s judiciary against local lenders.
The banks’ protests were sparked after Judge Aoun froze the assets of six of Lebanon’s largest banks and those of their board of directors last week to investigate possible transfers of billions of dollars abroad as they imposed informal capital controls.
Who is Riad Salameh?
Salameh, 71, had steered Lebanon’s finances since 1993, through postwar recovery and political unrest.
He was praised as the pillar of Lebanon’s financial stability but, since the country’s economic meltdown in late 2019, he has drawn increasing scrutiny.
Lebanon opened a local investigation into Salameh’s wealth last year, after Switzerland requested assistance in an investigation into more than $300 million (€271.6 million) that he had reportedly embezzled out of the central bank with the help of his brother.
In January, Judge Aoun had already imposed a travel ban and froze some of the governor’s assets.
Salameh has accused Aoun of “personal enmity,” stating that the prosecution is politically motivated and part of an “organized campaign to tarnish” his reputation.
Lebanon’s economic crisis
In 2019, the country plunged into an economic meltdown after the collapse of a Ponzi scheme, in which fresh money was constantly borrowed on the pledge of high-interest payouts.
The collapse meant private banks had to lock depositors’ dollar accounts.
The Lebanese lira was devalued by 90%, following what is now considered the country’s worst economic crisis in its modern history and left half the population in poverty.
Last year, the government carried out a forensic audit into the central bank to uncover what caused, and who was responsible for, the financial disaster.
fh/rt (Reuters, AP, AFP)