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Lebanon banking chief maintains innocence in European embezzlement probe

Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh during a studio photo session in Beirut on December 20, 2021
— Beirut (AFP)

Lebanese central bank governor Riad Salameh maintained his innocence Friday following a second and final day of questioning in Beirut before European investigators in a probe into his personal wealth.

Salameh, 72, is part of the Lebanese political class widely blamed for a crushing economic crisis that began in late 2019 and which the World Bank has dubbed one of the worst in recent history.

He faces allegations of crimes including embezzlement in separate probes in Lebanon and abroad, with investigators examining the fortune he has amassed during three decades in the job.

Following a three-hour session Friday, Salameh released a statement saying he appeared as a witness and "not as a suspect or facing charges".

"Funds from the Lebanese central bank were not transferred to my account," he said in a statement, adding: "The transfers I made abroad, whatever the amount, were from my personal account."

Central bank chief Riad Salameh faced two days of questioning at Beirut's heavily guarded justice palace

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

Salameh "answered all the questions" and "pledged to provide all the documents tracing the sources of his wealth" as well as the addresses of people mentioned in the questioning 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 assistant Marianne Hoayek, the official said on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to discuss matter with the press.

- 198 questions -

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

The hearing had been scheduled to begin on Wednesday but Salameh failed to show up, claiming it was in "conflict with national sovereignty", an argument the judiciary rejected.

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

Salameh had answered 198 questions during the two sessions, the first judicial official said, mostly about the central bank's ties 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 at a commission, which was then allegedly transferred to bank accounts abroad.

Salameh denied that any central bank funds had gone to the company.

He decried "ill intentions" against him and blamed an "ongoing media campaign" for his legal woes.

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

During this week's sessions, 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 in a move linked to a French probe into Salameh's personal wealth.

The three-decade bank governor has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has rarely appeared before investigating judges, despite numerous complaints and summonses.

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

The domestic probe was opened following a request for assistance from Switzerland's public prosecutor looking into more than $300 million in fund movements by the Salameh brothers.