BEIRUT – News published by a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper about a Swiss investigation into money transfers allegedly made by Central Bank chief Riad Salameh degenerated into yet another political squabble.
A judicial source said on Tuesday that the Lebanese judiciary has received a request for assistance from Switzerland over the investigation.
In response to questions about local media reports of a European inquiry, Lebanese Justice Minister Marie Claude Najm said she had received a request for cooperation from Swiss judicial authorities and submitted it to the public prosecutor. She did not elaborate.
A statement by Salameh dismissed any allegations about transfers by him, his brother or assistant as “fabrications.” He threatened to sue anyone who spreads them with harmful intent.
The investigation is looking into $400 million allegedly transferred out of Lebanon, despite tight restrictions, by Salameh, his brother, his assistant and financial institutions linked to the central bank, the source said.
The allegations were first carried by Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper.
The Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) confirmed it had “sent through official channels a request for mutual legal assistance to the competent authorities in Lebanon.”
In the statement, the OAG did not mention any suspects, but said its request was linked to its “investigation for aggravated money laundering… in connection with possible embezzlement to the detriment of the Banque du Liban (central bank).”
It said it would provide no further comments on the case for the time being.
According to the Lebanese judicial source, Judge Ghassan Oueidat received the request “directly from the Swiss embassy in Beirut.”
The request did not include documents or evidence proving allegations but listed questions the judiciary should ask Salameh and others linked to the case, according to the source.
“The letter was sent to the judiciary in an unusual way, outside regular diplomatic channels,” the judicial source added.
— “Shady dealings” —
The investigation was first reported on Tuesday by Al-Akhbar, a staunch critic of the long-time Central Bank governor.
According to the daily, the probe is part of a wider effort spearheaded by France, Britain and the United States to investigate “shady dealings” by Lebanese officials, including Salameh.
Lebanese political sources said the investigation will not be limited to the Central Bank chief, who at one point believed that he was above suspicion, and who already has significant wealth he accumulated from his work in the financial sector with American firm Merrill Lynch and other companies.
Salameh’s role has come under scrutiny as foreign donors demanded a Central Bank audit and he turned into a focus of anger for protesters last year.
The same sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that European countries have been encouraging Switzerland to prompt questions in Lebanon and elsewhere in order to reveal the sources of the wealth of some Lebanese politicians and officials deposited in European banks.
The most recent investigation comes as Lebanon grapples with its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
The Lebanese pound has lost more than 80% of its value against the dollar on the black market and banks have halted dollar transactions to shore up dwindling foreign currency reserves.
Salameh and the country’s elite have been widely accused of stashing their dollars in foreign accounts to evade capital controls.
This has sparked calls abroad and at home for efforts to return deposits to Lebanon, which is in desperate need of foreign currency.
Salameh has pledged to investigate money transfers that took place since the country introduced banking restrictions.
Last year, he said in an interview with the France 24 news channel that $1 billion had been stashed abroad.
Lebanon in 2020 said it filed a request to Geneva to help track funds transferred to Swiss accounts.
But Swiss authorities have not complied with the request, the judicial source said.
Political sources in Lebanon did not rule out that parties linked to Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, could be behind the leaking of the news about Salameh.
Justice minister Najm, the sources noted, is herself affiliated with the FPM.
The sources explained that Bassil has been trying to “discredit” any Maronite political figure that might have the chance to secure the presidency in 2022.
The same sources indicated that Bassil still considers himself the only person qualified to be the next president, as head of the largest Christian bloc in the Lebanese parliament.
However, the sources noted that the president’s son-in-law’s actions make him appear to be totally oblivious of the existence of US sanctions imposed against him under the Magnitsky Act.