BEIRUT – Under heavy security, Lebanon's embattled Central Bank chief was questioned for the first time on Thursday before a visiting European legal team in a money-laundering probe linked to the governor.
Several European countries are investigating Gov. Riad Salameh, who in recent years has been charged with a handful of corruption-related crimes. Salameh has been the head of Lebanon's Central Bank since 1993.
The questioning was originally scheduled for Wednesday, when Salameh failed to show up. According to Lebanon's state-run National News Agency, his legal team filed a complaint saying the presence of foreign judges violates the country's sovereignty. The judiciary dismissed the complaint, saying their presence was in line with Lebanon's international obligations.
Lebanese soldiers and police stood guard around the Justice Palace in Beirut after Salameh arrived there earlier in the day. About a dozen protesters gathered and chanted slogans against the 72 year-old central bank chief and the cash-strapped country's political leaders.
The European delegation — with representatives from France, Germany, and Luxembourg — questioned Salameh through another Lebanese judge, acting as a go-between. Under Lebanese laws, they cannot directly question Salameh.
The session lasted around six hours and another session was scheduled for Friday, judicial officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Salameh gave no statements to the media after Thursday's questioning.
Judge Helena Iskandar, representing the Lebanese state in the questioning and the European probe, has charged Salameh, his brother Raja and associate Marianne Hoayek with corruption, judicial officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
She urged the Lebanese judge questioning Salameh on behalf of the European delegation to order Salameh's arrest and that of the other two suspects, the officials said. However, no warrant was issued. Also, officials said Thursday that earlier statements about an arrest warrant issued for Salameh had been incorrect.
In addition to the European probe, there are other legal proceedings against Salameh underway in Lebanon. In late February, Beirut’s public prosecutor, Raja Hamoush, charged the same three suspects — the governor, his brother and the aide — with corruption, including embezzling public funds, forgery, illicit enrichment, money-laundering and violation of tax laws.
The European delegation is investigating the laundering of some $330 million.
Lebanon is grappling with the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history, an economic meltdown that began in late 2019, rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by the country’s political class. More than 75% of the tiny nation’s population of 6 million has been plunged into poverty.
Salameh was once hailed as the guardian of Lebanon’s financial stability, but many in the country now hold him responsible for the crisis, citing policies that drove up national debt. He still enjoys backing from the country's top politicians, however. His term ends in July and he has told local media that he would like to step down from his post instead of pursuing another term.
Salameh's questioning by the European team is a major breakthrough and a development free from meddling by political players, according to Nizar Saghieh, a rights lawyer and co-founder of Lebanese watchdog group Legal Agenda.
“Such autonomy in defending the state's interests might open lots of doors and limit the political hegemony,” Saghieh added.