EU investigators visiting Lebanon as part of a corruption inquiry into banker Riad Salameh have said the trip was a success.
Lebanon’s embattled Central Bank Governor has been the subject of at least six different investigations in Europe over alleged financial crimes. This week investigators from Germany, Luxembourg, and France gained access to documents and questioned witnesses.
“We had some complications at first, but the co-operation turned out to be very smooth; this is a very encouraging sign for the coming steps,” a diplomatic source told The National.
The trip, the first of its kind in the case, is part of a cross-country investigation looking into the alleged embezzlement of more than $330 million from Lebanon's central bank through a contract awarded to the governor’s brother's company.
Judges from France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland and Lichtenstein retraced an alleged laundering scheme going from an account at the central bank to luxurious properties in Europe owned by Riad Salameh and his entourage.
Their investigations led to the seizing of assets worth €120 million ($148 million) related to the Salameh case and the indictment of his romantic partner in Paris.
Both Riad Salameh and his brother Raja, who have not been convicted of any crimes, have repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
Riad Salameh rejects the accusation of embezzlement, claiming his wealth, which he estimates at $23 million, has been lawfully acquired and comes from investments he made as a banker before becoming Central Bank Governor in 1993.
'Unprecedented awakening' among insiders
European investigators were able to question a dozen witnesses with the help of the Lebanese judiciary, including top officials at the Central Bank, prominent bankers and an auditor.
Zena Wakim, a lawyer for the Swiss foundation Accountability Now, which has filed complaints against the Salameh brothers in several European countries, said the European officials' trip has triggered an “unprecedented awakening” among insiders and a readiness to co-operate with the judiciary, even from those not summoned for questioning.
“Some insiders of the system spontaneously came to us to share evidence,” she said, and a prominent witness even asked to be heard directly in Luxembourg, two sources said.
Ms Wakim said this was a sign that “the Lebanese financial sphere is beginning to speak out”.
“They see that the ship is sinking and they need to tell their own version of the story before it is too late,” she added.
Before the arrival of the European officials, it was feared that the absence of a judge presiding over the stalled local investigation opened in 2021 into Riad Salameh could have prevented information sharing from the file.
However, in another positive development, the investigators managed to access the Lebanese file, two sources said.
Among sources close to the case, it is believed that these latest developments show major suspicions from the European side, which they think should lead to the trials opening in Europe this year.
Ms Wakim was more cautious, saying: “Anything can happen; the local political elite is still able to manoeuvre to jeopardise the European investigations”.
A second round in March
There is still progress to be made in this high-profile case, and co-operation with the Lebanese judiciary has not always been easy in the past amid strong political pressure.
The visiting European investigators were finally able to obtain Raja Salameh's account information from Lebanese banks, which had they tried to access for months, in vain.
These are key documents, as they will help the judiciary to track the money flow in Lebanon, where it is suspected that most allegedly embezzled funds were transferred.
But Lebanese authorities handed over the banking documents under specific conditions regarding their use in courts abroad.
“The documents would need to get approval from the Lebanese judiciary through a request for mutual assistance if they were to be used in court,” the diplomatic source said.
Some fear that may pave the way for more delay.
The European investigative team is set to come back to Lebanon at the beginning of March for a second round of questioning, which will include Riad Salameh and his brother, AFP reported.
Their status, whether as witnesses or suspects, has not yet been communicated.