France Launches Probe into Lebanon Central Bank Governor’s Wealth

Published: 08 June 2021

Riad Salameh.jpgRiad Salame, Governor of the Banque du Liban. (Photo: Tachfine Oumlil, Wikimedia, License)

By Lara Dihmis

France’s National Prosecutor’s Office (PNF) has launched a preliminary investigation into the personal wealth of Lebanon’s Central Bank Governor, Riad Salame, following two complaints filed last month with the judicial institution that deals exclusively with financial affairs.

The move, confirmed to OCCRP by the PNF, means that now two official investigations are currently underway by European authorities - in France and in Switzerland - while the cases filed with U.K. authorities, including the Serious Fraud Office, National Crime Agency, and Financial Conduct Authority, by a number of organizations are still under review.

The PNF probe cites the findings of two OCCRP and Daraj investigations published late last year, according to AFP. The first, published in August, revealed how offshore companies owned by Salame have invested in overseas assets worth nearly US$100 million.

The second, published in December, revealed how a company tied to Salame, who claims to be a French citizen, bought a stake in his son’s London-based wealth management company, before selling it to a major Lebanese bank that he regulates.

In January, Swiss authorities requested Lebanon’s legal assistance on a criminal investigation of the Banque du Liban (BDL) and Salame, and preemptively froze a large portion of his remaining cash in Switzerland held in accounts with Pictet, UBS, Credit Suisse, HSBC, and Julius Baer. An investigation into “aggravated money laundering” is ongoing.

In an interview with OCCRP, Zena Wakim, lawyer of the Swiss foundation Accountability Now, which has filed complaints with the French, U.K. and Swiss authorities, called the French move “inevitable” in light of Switzerland’s investigation, and since the offences are also related to France.

“With aggravated money laundering, we’re talking about the highest criminal offence when it comes to financial crimes, and we’re also talking about a network of criminals supporting the laundering. So it’s not about an individual or an isolated action. It’s extremely serious,” she said.

“Historically, we’ve never seen Switzerland investigate for aggravated money laundering, so other European states which the offences relate to can’t say it’s just petty cash and decide not to investigate,” she added.

Other organizations behind the complaints, and which have also worked closely with civil society actors, activists and lawyers in Lebanon, include Sherpa, the anti-corruption NGO based in France, and the London-based legal practice, Guernica37.

Wakim explained that the filings are becoming more coordinated between the various groups filing complaints against Salame.

“While it started as separate initiatives, there is closer coordination between all actors,” she said, explaining that when cases are filed on the same subject, they’re often merged into one legal case.

Salame has consistently dismissed the allegations against him as “fabrications and false news.” On Sunday, his lawyer reportedly told Reuters that the latest allegations were a politically motivated "communications operation."