Lebanon prosecutor questions central bank head at Swiss request

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh answered questions from Lebanon’s public prosecutor on Thursday based on a request from Swiss investigators looking into allegations of money laundering and embezzlement linked to the bank.

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh speaks during a news conference at Central Bank in Beirut, Lebanon, November 11, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo/File Photo

Salameh said in a statement he had told Public Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat that he stood “ready to answer any questions” and no financial transfers had been made from central bank accounts.

The Swiss attorney general’s office has not said whether Salameh is a suspect or not. On Thursday, it said it had no further comment at present.

A senior Lebanese judicial source told Reuters Salameh had been questioned, but not as a suspect, and had decided to accept the option to respond to further questions directly to Swiss authorities.

“Salameh decided to be questioned in Switzerland as the Swiss (request) gives him the option, and he will appoint a lawyer to follow up on the case,” the source said.

Salameh has led Lebanon’s central bank since 1993. His role came under scrutiny after the country’s financial system collapsed in an unprecedented crisis in 2019 that prompted a crash in the Lebanese pound and a sovereign default.

The Swiss attorney general’s office said this week it had requested legal assistance from Lebanon in the context of a probe into “aggravated money laundering” and possible embezzlement tied to the Lebanese central bank.

A Lebanese government official told Reuters that Swiss authorities were investigating money transfers by Salameh and also looking into his brother and assistant. Salameh said any allegations about such transfers were “fabrications”.

Salameh’s statement said he met the prosecutor, answered questions sent on behalf of the Swiss and “asserted to him that any transfers were not made from the Lebanese central bank’s accounts”.

Details of the inquiry have not been revealed.

A source familiar with the case has told Reuters the Swiss asked Lebanese authorities via the embassy to ask Salameh, his brother and assistant “specific questions” about transfers abroad in recent years that amount to nearly $350 million.

Reporting by Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis; Additional reporting by Michael Shields in Zurich; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Giles Elgood