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How much trouble is Lebanon's Riad Salameh in after Interpol's red notice?

Days earlier, the French judiciary issued an international arrest warrant for Riad Salameh after he failed to show up at a hearing in Paris over his alleged involvement in an embezzlement case.
Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh gestures during an interview with AFP at his office in the capital Beirut on December 20, 2021. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images)

BEIRUT — Lebanon has received an Interpol red notice for its embattled central bank governor, Riad Salameh, the country’s Interior Ministry said on Friday, after France issued an international arrest warrant for him in a major corruption case.

Caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi told Reuters that the notice was issued on Wednesday and he informed Lebanon’s judiciary the next day.

“Whatever the judiciary says, we will do,” Mawlawi added.

Salameh, who has been head of the central bank for three decades, has come under increased scrutiny after Lebanon’s financial collapse in October 2019, with many blaming him and his financial policies for the economic crisis.

The 72-year-old governor is currently the subject of a European investigation into the suspected embezzlement of $330 million from the central bank in money transfers to an obscure offshore company between 2002 and 2015. The investigators had set a hearing for Salameh in Paris on Tuesday where prosecutors were planning to press preliminary fraud and money laundering charges. However, Salameh, who denies any wrongdoing, skipped the hearing and remained in Beirut. The French judiciary subsequently issued an international arrest warrant for him.

Rocky past with Interpol

Salameh, however, is unlikely to be extradited. Lebanon does not extradite its nationals according to its internal laws, instead trying them inside the country.

Beirut has ignored similar notices by the global police agency in the past, including two issued against auto tycoon Carlos Ghosn in 2020 and 2022. Ghosn was arrested in Tokyo in November 2018 on financial misconduct charges. In late 2019, he fled house arrest in Japan in a daring operation during which he was stashed in a case for audio equipment and smuggled out of the country. 

Since then, Ghosn, who is French-Lebanese, has been residing in Lebanon, which does not have an extradition treaty with Japan. The Interpol’s red notice is a nonbinding request for law enforcement authorities worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest a fugitive wanted for prosecution or to serve prison sentences. In a rare instance, Lebanese authorities extradited in 2019 a Lebanese-American man wanted in the United States for kidnapping his son and fleeing to Lebanon after a custody battle with his ex-wife. 

The two countries do not have an extradition agreement. The lawyer of the child’s mother back then hailed the Lebanese police’s efforts to track down the father and hand him over to the FBI. In December 2020, authorities in Beirut arrested Lebanese-French businessmen Ziad Taqi al-Din based on an Interpol notice. France had issued an arrest warrant against Taqi al-Din over his alleged involvement in the case of the Libyan financing of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential campaign. Taqi al-Din was released after a few days but the judiciary has refused to hand him over to France.

French probe

Lebanese authorities are also leading their own probes into alleged financial crimes committed by Salameh. In March last year, Judge Ghada Aoun charged him with illicit enrichment. A year before, she charged him with mishandling foreign currency and breach of trust.

However, France still has legal leeway to go after Salameh's assets. In 2021, the French association Sherpa and the Collective of Victims of Fraudulent and Criminal Practices in Lebanon group submitted a complaint, demanding French justice to investigate the purchase by Lebanese influential figures of expensive real estates in France. This complaint procedure, known as "ill-gotten goods investigation" enables French authorities to force the owners of these real estates to explain the origins of the funds used for the purchase. 

If Salameh is found guilty of using "unclean money" for buying luxurious assets in France, authorities can seize these assets, and in principle, could sell them, and then restitute the money to the Lebanese people, in form of assistance projects.

The domestic probes into Salameh and his amassed fortune have been widely politicized in the crisis-hit country. The Lebanese judiciary's disciplinary council issued a decision last month to remove Judge Aoun from office. On Thursday, supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement, affiliated with former President Michel Aoun — one of the most vocal critics of Salameh — gathered in front of the governor’s house in the town of Rabieh, 13 kilometers (8 miles) north of Beirut. They demanded that he face justice and recover stolen funds.

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Saadeh al-Shami called on Salameh to resign after France issued the arrest warrant. “In any country when someone is accused of such crimes, they should not remain in a position of responsibility and should recuse themselves immediately,” Shami told Reuters on Thursday.

In an interview with the pan-Arab Al-Hadath TV channel, Salameh said that he would only resign when a judicial ruling is issued against him.

“The judicial pathway is unfair, but I am ready for it,” he added.

Salameh’s term at the central bank ends in July, and he had said in earlier statements that he will not seek to extend it.

Lebanon is in the throes of a grave economic crisis that is worsening by the day amid a lack of reforms, as politicians bicker over a presidential candidate, leaving the country without a president now for more than six months.

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