Britain's organised crime agency reviewing report accusing Lebanese governor of corruption

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PARIS BEIRUT, 2 April 2018- Britain's organised crime agency is reviewing a report from a group of London-based lawyers who accuse the central bank governor Riad Salameh and associates of money laundering and corrupt practices, four sources familiar with the matter said.

The report, seen by Reuters, outlines what it says are assets, companies and investment vehicles in Lebanon worth hundreds of millions of pounds which it alleges Salameh, members of his family and his associates used over years to divert money out of Britain.

Salameh, who has led Lebanon's central bank since 1993, told Reuters that he had read a copy of the report and described it as part of a smear campaign. They are false allegations, he said, the London-based legal practice Guernica 37 presented the report to the British police late last year, two of the sources said.

They said it was then referred to the National Crime Agency of Britain. The report was prepared on behalf of a group of Lebanese civil society in the diaspora. We can confirm that we have received this report, but we are not in a position to comment further, said a spokesman for the NCA, declining to say whether an investigation had been launched.

Two sources said the financial investigation unit at NCA was carrying out a scoping exercise, a form of formal investigation, to determine whether there were sufficient grounds to start a preliminary investigation.

Lebanon's political and financial elite have been under increasing scrutiny for alleged mismanagement, corruption and blocking efforts to obtain international aid, particularly since a massive explosion at Beirut port two months ago plunged the country deeper into distress.

The Guernica 37 probe is one of several ongoing or planned projects in Europe that target the officials in the financial sector of Lebanon and its broader political class.

The Lebanese Attorney General's office said in January it had asked legal assistance from Lebanon in the context of a probe into suspected money laundering and possible embezzlement- related to the Swiss Central Bank.

In response to questions from Reuters, the Swiss attorney general's office did not say whether Salameh was a suspect and declined further comment.

Salameh has denied all wrongdoing; Lebanon's banking system is at the heart of a financial crisis that erupted in late 2019. Banks have cut most transfers abroad and blocked access to deposits as dollars grew scarcer.

The meltdown has sparked the currency, prompted a widespread default and fuelled sovereign poverty. Toby Caldman said in a statement to Reuters that the report of the group was one of a number of legal filings it had prepared on Lebanon for British authorities. His intention was to expose all the pillars of alleged corruption in the country, investigate and address them, he said.

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