Lebanon banking chief maintains innocence in European embezzlement probe

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The governor of Lebanon’s central bank, Riad Salameh, maintained his innocence on Friday after the second and final day of questioning in Beirut before European investigators probing his personal wealth.

Salameh, 72, is part of Lebanon’s political class widely blamed for a brutal economic crisis that began in late 2019 and which the World Bank found one of the worst in recent memory.

He is facing accusations of crimes including embezzlement in separate probes in Lebanon and abroad, and investigators to examine the success he had collected for thirty years in the job.

After a three-hour session on Friday, Salameh issued a statement saying he appeared as a witness and “not as a suspect or facing charges”.

“Funds from the central bank of Lebanon were not transferred to my account,” he said in a statement, adding: “The transfers I made abroad were from my personal account, regardless of the amount.”

European investigators, including representatives of authorities in France, Germany and Luxembourg, are looking into allegations of financial misconduct, including possible money laundering and embezzlerment.

“Salameh answered all the questions” and “promised to provide all the documents that trace the sources of his wealth” as well as the addresses of the people mentioned in the interrogation sessions, a judicial official told AFP.

Members of the European delegation plan to return to Beirut in April to question Salameh’s brother Raja and former aide Marianne Hoayek, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter. the newspapers.

– 198 questions –

Thursday’s questioning session at Beirut’s heavily guarded palace of justice, which lasted more than five hours, was the first time Salameh had appeared as part of the European probe.

The hearing was scheduled to start on Wednesday but Salameh failed to show up, claiming he was in “conflict with national sovereignty”, an argument rejected by the judges.

For procedural reasons, the European investigators submitted their questions to a Lebanese judge, who was then responsible for sending them to Salaameh in his presence, a judicial source previously told AFP.

Salameh answered 198 questions during the two sessions, the first judicial official said, mainly about the central bank’s links to Forry Associates Ltd, a British Virgin Islands-registered company that listed Salameh’s brother as its beneficiary.

Forry is suspected of having brokered Lebanese treasury bonds and Eurobonds on commission, which were then allegedly transferred to overseas bank accounts.

Salameh denied that any central bank funds went to the company.

He denied “bad intentions” against him and blamed a “constant media campaign” for his legal problems.

In January, European investigators interviewed banking officials in Beirut about the transfer of funds to countries where Salameh has significant assets.

During this week’s session, Salameh was also questioned about “the huge funds and real estate he owns in Lebanon and abroad,” the official said.

France, Germany and Luxembourg seized assets worth 120 million euros ($130 million) in March 2022 as part of a French investigation into Salameh’s personal wealth.

The bank governor of three decades has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has rarely appeared before investigative judges, despite many complaints and summonses.

Last month, Lebanese authorities charged Salaameh with embezzlement, money laundering and tax evasion as part of their own investigation.

The domestic probe was opened following a request for assistance from the Swiss public prosecutor to look into more than $300 million in fund movements from the Salameh brothers.

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