Probe into Lebanon's central bank governor in limbo after judge declines case

Probe into Lebanon's central bank governor in limbo after judge declines case
A probe against Lebanon's central bank governor, Riad Salameh, has been thrown into limbo after a judge refused to take on the case.
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Salameh faces embezzlement charges totalling $300 million [source: Getty]

A high-profile corruption probe into Lebanon's central bank governor is in limbo after being assigned to a judge who then declined to take on the case, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat last week referred Riad Salameh and a number of unidentified associates to a Beirut court after the conclusion of an 18-month preliminary investigation, asking a judge to file charges including illicit enrichment, embezzlement, money laundering and tax evasion.

Salameh faces investigations in Lebanon and at least five European countries, including into the alleged embezzlement of more than $300 million by him and his younger brother, Raja.

The brothers were charged in March with illicit enrichment and money laundering in a separate Lebanese case.

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They deny any wrongdoing in all cases against them. Riad Salameh and a lawyer for Raja Salameh did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

While Oueidat's referral pushed the case forward, the judge he ordered to take on the case, Ziad Abu Haidar, asked to be recused, apparently due to the sensitivity of the case, the two judicial sources said.

Abu Haidar did not respond to a request for comment.

"In practice, the case has stopped for the first time in one and a half years," one of the sources said.

"That's dangerous," the source added because no judge currently presides over it and it could remain in limbo for an extended period of time.

The governor and his brother had already filed lawsuits alleging Oueidat and the judge who carried out the preliminary investigation, Jean Tannous, committed "grave mistakes" in the probe.

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Similar lawsuits have stymied an investigation into the deadly August 2020 Beirut blast.

Abu Haidar's request must now be ruled on by Beirut Court of Appeals first chief Judge Habib Rizkallah, who can either compel the judge to take on the case or allow him to step aside.

If he agrees with Abu Haidar's request, the case would need to be assigned to a new judge.

Salameh has led the central bank for nearly three decades and retains significant support among Lebanon's top politicians. The probe into his finances has been beset by allegations of political interference.

Few if any top Lebanese officials have ever been held accountable for crimes despite decades of rampant corruption, high-profile assassinations, the port blast and the country's 2019 financial collapse.