Liechtenstein Asks Beirut to Help Investigate Lebanon’s Central Banker
A judge in Liechtenstein is investigating money transfers between companies owned by Lebanon’s central bank governor Riad Salame and the brother of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a leaked document seen by OCCRP shows.
In June, a request for mutual legal assistance issued to Lebanese authorities questioned an alleged agreement dated January 2016 between M1 Group, a Lebanese holding company co-founded in 2007 by Najib and Taha Mikati, and Salame’s Swiss company, SI 2 SA.
Under the purported agreement, Taha Mikati transferred US$14 million in August 2016 to the Swiss bank account of Salame’s Liechtenstein-registered company Crossland Limited, the documents show.
A copy of the request for mutual legal assistance was obtained by Daraj, OCCRP’s media partner in Beirut, and forms part of an ongoing money laundering probe into Lebanon’s central bank governor which the tiny European principality opened last year.
Salame is under investigation in several other European countries relating to alleged embezzlement and money laundering. Earlier this year, authorities in three European countries froze assets worth 120 million euros ($130 million) linked to the bank governor.
Liechtenstein judge Michael Jehle confirmed to OCCRP that authorities in Vaduz had sent a request for “mutual legal assistance in criminal matters” to Lebanese authorities, but declined to provide further details. Two judicial sources in Lebanon speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed the letter’s authenticity to Daraj.
Salame’s SI 2 SA is already under investigation in Switzerland, where prosecutors say it helped the bank governor and his brother, Raja Salame funnel more than $300 million from Lebanon’s central bank through a British Virgin Islands company between 2002 and 2014.
The Swiss company was managed by Marwan Issa El Khoury, Salame’s nephew who directed several other companies ultimately owned by the central banker through which Salame invested in European real estate worth tens of millions of euros.
Maher Mikati, M1 Group’s CEO and son of prime minister Najib Mikati, denied any agreements between the company and Salame’s SI 2 SA.
“M1 Group has no agreements with SI 2SA. We have not been approached by any official or regulatory body in Lichtenstein [sic] or any other jurisdiction with regards to this or any other investigation,” Mikati wrote in a statement to OCCRP.
The request also sought information about a transfer of four million shares in Bank Audi S.A.L, worth over $25 million, to Crossland, and about the source of Salame’s wealth. A previous OCCRP investigation showed Crossland bought a stake in Salame’s son’s wealth management firm, then sold it to a Lebanese bank regulated by the country’s central bank.
Salame, one of the world’s longest serving central bank governors, did not respond to emailed questions.The governor has previously denied wrongdoing and said he had demonstrated that his wealth was acquired before he took up his central bank post in 1993.
Commenting on Liechtenstein’s request for legal assistance, Louay Ghandour, President of the Lebanese Anti-Corruption Task Force, called for a criminal prosecution of Salame in Lebanon.
“We hope that the Lebanese judicial system will pay sufficient attention to this request and follow the example of judges in European states who are busy pursuing the cases of Riad Salame’s money,” Ghandour told OCCRP.
“Salame still plays a key role in the loss of people’s deposits in Lebanese banks and we have not seen any serious prosecution in Lebanon. Even those that took place here are merely acts of folklore.”