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European investigators quiz Lebanese over central bank chief

Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh poses during a studio photo session in the capital Beirut, on December 20, 2021. ©AFP

Beirut (AFP) - European investigators questioned witnesses for eight hours in Beirut Tuesday as part of a probe into Lebanon's central bank governor Riad Salemeh and his brother, a judicial official told AFP.

Investigators from France, Germany and Luxembourg began hearing witnesses Monday as part of the case of suspected financial misconduct including possible money laundering and embezzlement.

The long-serving central bank chief is among top officials widely blamed for monetary policies that have led to a Lebanese economic crisis that the World Bank has dubbed one of the worst globally in modern history.

Investigators heard evidence for more than eight hours from Ahmad Jachi, a central bank vice governor from 2003 to 2008, as well as Marwan Kheireddine, who heads Al Mawarid Bank, the official said on condition of anonymity because they cannot speak to the press.

Kheireddine, who has close ties to Salameh, is also a former state minister who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in parliament last year.

The investigators questioned former vice governor Saad Andary on Monday and are also set to hear evidence from Raed Charafeddine, another former vice governor, on Wednesday, although Salame is not among them.

"To my knowledge, so far he has not received a summons," Salame's French lawyer, Pierre-Olivier Sur, told AFP.

The questioning of the vice governors had so far focused on the central council's past decisions, the source said.

Bank owners and directors were asked about the bank accounts of the governor's brother, Raja Salameh, as well as "money transfers to the brothers' accounts abroad", the source added.

The investigators also examined the central bank's ties to Forry Associates Ltd, a Virgin Islands-registered company that lists Raja Salameh as its beneficiary.

Forry is suspected to have sold treasury bonds and Eurobonds issued by the Lebanese central bank at a commission, which was then allegedly transferred to Raja Salameh's bank accounts abroad.

France, Germany and Luxembourg in March seized assets worth 120 million euros ($130 million) in a move linked to a probe by French investigators into 72-year-old Salameh's personal wealth.

Lebanon also opened a probe into Salameh's wealth last year, after the office of Switzerland's top prosecutor requested assistance with an investigation into more than $300 million allegedly embezzled out of the central bank with the help of his brother.

Salameh and his brother both deny any wrongdoing.

The investigators also plan to question Lebanese bankers as well as current and former employees of the central bank as part of their probe.

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