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Lebanon slaps travel ban on central bank chief wanted by France

Riad Salameh has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and continues to serve as central bank governor
— Beirut (AFP)

A Lebanese judge has banned the country's central bank governor Riad Salameh from travelling, days after Beirut received an Interpol Red Notice following a French arrest warrant, a judicial official said Wednesday.

Salameh has been the target of a series of judicial investigations both at home and abroad on allegations including embezzlement, money laundering, fraud and illicit enrichment, which he denies.

French investigators suspect that during his three decades as central bank chief, Salameh misused public funds to accumulate real estate and banking assets concealed through a complex and fraudulent financial network.

On Wednesday, judge Imad Qabalan questioned Salameh and "decided to release him pending investigation, ban him from travelling, and confiscate his Lebanese and French passports", the official told AFP, requesting anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media.

Activists say the travel ban on the central bank chief helps shield him from being brought to justice abroad -- and from potentially bringing down others in Lebanon's entrenched political class.

"The Lebanese judiciary, with the exception of a few judges, has shown that it is not independent. It is biased for politicians who steer it the way they want," charged lawyer and activist Karim Daher.

"The corrupt Lebanese regime... has no interest in Salameh being tried abroad and spilling the beans" about the political class's financial activities, he told AFP.

Interpol circulated a Red Notice last week after a French magistrate issued a warrant for Salameh, who failed to appear for questioning in Paris before investigators probing his sizeable assets across Europe.

An Interpol Red Notice is not an international arrest warrant but asks authorities worldwide to provisionally detain people pending possible extradition or other legal actions.

Lebanon does not extradite its nationals but Salameh could go on trial in Lebanon if local judicial authorities decide the accusations against him are founded, an official previously told AFP.

Qabalan asked the French judiciary to refer Salameh's file to Beirut in order to "determine whether the Lebanese judiciary will prosecute him for the crimes he is accused of in France or not", the official added.

Salameh "asked the judge to try him in Lebanon and not to extradite him to France", the official said.

- German warrant -

Also Wednesday, Germany notified Lebanon's general prosecutor that it too had issued an arrest warrant for Salameh, the judicial official said, adding that Munich's public prosecutor would submit the warrant to Interpol shortly.

Salameh has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and continues to serve as central bank governor. His mandate ends in July.

In March 2022, France, Germany and Luxembourg seized assets worth 120 million euros ($130 million) in a move linked to a probe into Salameh's wealth.

In February, Lebanon charged Salameh with embezzlement, money laundering and tax evasion as part of its own investigations.

An officer stands guard outside the Justice Palace where Lebanese central bank chief Riad Salameh appeared

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 Salameh and his brother.

This year, European investigators have questioned Salameh in Beirut, also hearing from his assistant Marianne Hoayek, his brother Raja, a Lebanese minister and central bank audit firms.

The judicial official said Wednesday that a judge had notified Raja Salameh and Hoayek that they were due to appear before the French judiciary respectively on May 31 and June 13.

Since 2019, Lebanon has plunged into an economic crisis deemed by the World Bank as one of the planet's worst since the mid-19th century.

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