Lebanon central bank governor 'acknowledges' $300 million transfer at heart of Swiss probe, denies embezzlement

Lebanon central bank governor 'acknowledges' $300 million transfer at heart of Swiss probe, denies embezzlement
In an interview with The Financial Times published on Saturday, Riad Salameh did not deny the transactions at the heart of a Swiss probe into alleged embezzlement.
4 min read
25 April, 2021
Salameh said that transfer of the funds was approved by the BdL's central board [Getty]

The governor of Lebanon's central bank (BdL) appears to have acknowledged a movement of $300 million in funds between that institution and an offshore company in an interview published by the Financial Times on Saturday.

The transfer is at the centre of a Swiss probe into alleged embezzlement involving the BdL.

Speaking to FT, Riad Salameh did not deny that the transfer took place, but appeared to reject widely reported charges by Swiss prosecutors that it was an embezzlement operation orchestrated with the help of his brother.

Salameh had previously labelled the allegations as part of a "smear campaign" against him.

"Not one dollar that was in the operations you mention was at the detriment of the BdL," he told FT, adding: "all these transactions were approved by the [BdL's] central board".

In January, the Swiss attorney general’s office said that it was investigating aggravated money laundering involving Lebanon's central bank. The office has confirmed the probe is ongoing but refrained from further comment.

Last week, Swiss newspaper Le Temps reported that it had seen a Swiss judicial assistance request from Beirut which listed a series of movements of funds between Lebanon and Switzerland.

The letter highlighted a contract signed on April 6, 2002 between Lebanon's central bank and a company called Forry Associates Ltd, of which Raja Salameh is listed as the beneficiary. The company, which was dissolved in 2016, was registered in the British Virgin Islands.

The contract, reportedly signed by Riad Salameh and his brother, appears to have authorised Forry Associates to sell treasury bonds and Eurobonds issued by the Lebanese central bank at a commission.

Four former senior Lebanese bankers, familiar with bond-trading at the time the company was contracted by the central bank, said they had not heard of the company, according to FT.

Between April 2002 and October, Forry Associates boosted its account at the HSBC Private Bank in Geneva by $326 million, according to the judicial request seen by Le Temps. Most of the money in that account was reportedly immediately transferred Raja Salameh’s personal account at HSBC.

Just under $10 million went to two Swiss bank accounts controlled by Riad Salameh, one under the name of Panama-registered "Westlake Commercial Inc" at Julius Baer and another under the name of Swiss-registered SI 2 SA at EFG Bank. More than 7 million Swiss Francs were transferred to a UBS accounts under the name Red Street 10 SA, which Riad used to obtain real estate holdings in Switzerland, according to the judicial request.

Read more: Swiss money laundering probe eyes Lebanon central bank chief: report

In his interview with FT, Salameh refused to clarify who ran Forry Associates, if his brother signed the contract, or if he controlled Westlake or SI 2 SA. He said the Lebanese central bank account which paid Forry was a "clearing account", and that the money came from "participants of the operation".

He told the British newspaper that the movement of hundreds of millions of dollars was spread out over 14 years, "not in one shot or one deal". He also denied a conflict of interest and said Forry Associates had no exclusivity under its contract with the central bank and therefore "no special treatment".

His brother declined to comment to FT on the allegations.

"My integrity has never been questioned. I have always earned my money legitimately," he said. Four ex-board members of Lebanon’s central bank, who served during the relevant period, said they did not remember approving the transactions.

International scrutiny over allegations of corruption linked to Lebanese officials comes as the country grapples with its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, with over half the population living in poverty.

Lebanon’s currency has lost more than 85 percent of its value against the US dollar on the black market in a devaluation that has hit pensions and salaries hard. Lebanese banks have restricted access to pound deposits and frozen all dollar transactions since 2019 to stem a liquidity crunch and bolster dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

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