Lebanon’s embattled cenbank chief attends corruption hearing

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Lebanon’s central bank governor Riad Salameh was questioned in Beirut on Thursday in a hearing attended by European officials visiting the country as part of their probe into whether he embezzled vast sums of public funds, three sources said.

The 72-year-old governor, whose 30-year tenure at the bank is to end this summer, was interrogated for nearly six hours by a Lebanese judge relaying questions submitted by French and German officials, a judicial official said.

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The official said Salameh had “calmly” answered questions about Forry Associates, a firm owned by his brother which received commissions from the central bank.

European prosecutors, who have yet to file formal charges, suspect the central bank collected those commissions as a fee from bond buyers and then transferred the funds to Forry.

The judicial official and another source familiar with proceedings said Salameh came without a lawyer on Thursday and that a second hearing was scheduled for Friday morning.

Salameh is being investigated alongside his brother Raja in Lebanon and in at least five European countries over accusations of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars over more than a decade and laundering some of the proceeds abroad.

They both deny wrongdoing. The governor says the accusations are part of an attempt to scapegoat him for Lebanon’s financial meltdown.

Raja was meant to appear in front of a Lebanese judge on Friday, also with European investigators present, but it was unclear if his session would be postponed given the governor's hearing would continue.

A convoy of black cars was seen departing Lebanon’s justice palace after Salameh’s Thursday hearing. No protesters were seen although demonstrations have taken place outside the central bank in recent months against Salameh and his policies.

Salameh for decades enjoyed strong backing from Lebanese elites as he financed a state rife with corruption and enforced policies that earned commercial banks massive profits.

But he has faced increased scrutiny since a 2019 financial crisis resulting from decades of profligate spending, corruption and unsustainable policies by Lebanon's leaders.

The judge presiding over the main Lebanese probe into Salameh told Reuters Lebanon would reschedule hearings for its own probe into Salameh as soon as it had finished with requests submitted by the Europeans.

Lebanon has taken steps to freeze the Salameh brothers’ assets as part of a separate probe into the governor.

Last year, prosecutors in Germany said Salameh was a suspect in a case that led to the freezing of some 120 million euros ($132 million) of Lebanese assets abroad.

As probes have converged, some of his long-time allies have moved to distance themselves from him, according to political sources who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the subject.

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