Lebanese judge freezes assets of central bank governor

Jan 18, 2022, 9:13 AM | Updated: 1:44 pm

BEIRUT (AP) — An investigating judge in Beirut on Tuesday froze some assets belonging to the country’s central bank governor, who is accused of corruption and dereliction of duties during Lebanon’s unprecedented economic meltdown.

Judge Ghada Aoun said she ordered the freeze “as a precautionary measure” while an investigation into allegations against Gov. Riad Salameh continues. The governor failed to show up for questioning Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by a Lebanese anti-corruption group.

Last week, Aoun issued a travel ban for Salameh in the same case. The long-serving central bank governor is also being investigated in a handful of European countries on suspicion of money laundering.

The deeply divided Lebanon is going through its worst economic meltdown, with the value of the national currency plunging, foreign reserves running low and the highly indebted government unable to agree on an economic recovery plan.

Many hold Salameh responsible for the financial crisis, blaming him for policies that only drove national debt up and caused the currency to tumble. But Salameh, 71, has been in the post for nearly three decades and enjoys backing from most politicians, including the country’s prime minister.

In an incident reflecting growing public anger, a man held up employees of a commercial bank in the western Bekaa region at gunpoint Tuesday, threatening to burn the branch down if he couldn’t get access to his deposit in dollars, the National News Agency reported.

Since Lebanon’s crisis unfolded in late 2019, banks have limited withdrawals and transfers, fearing a run on banks.

In the incident in the town of Kefraya in Bekaa, the bank eventually agreed to hand over $50,000 of the man’s savings to a third party in exchange for him handing himself in, said Hassan Mughniyeh, the head of Lebanese Depositors Association, a group that campaigns for people’s access to their savings. No one was hurt.

Salameh dismissed the lawsuit against him — filed by a group of lawyers known by the name “The People Want to Reform the Regime” — as political, saying it lacked evidence. He called for Judge Aoun to be dismissed from the case and accused her of bias.

It was not immediately clear how authorities could implement the order, which includes seven residential units owned by Salameh and four luxury cars.

Salameh was touted as the guardian of Lebanon’s monetary stability and praised for steering the country’s finances after recovery from the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and other bouts of unrest. But he has come under intense scrutiny since the economic meltdown began in late 2019, with many experts now questioning his monetary policies.

Salameh is also being investigated in Switzerland, Luxembourg and France for potential money laundering and embezzlement. Local media reported in recent months that Salameh, his brother and an aide have been involved in illegal businesses, including money transfers abroad despite the informal capital controls imposed at home.

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Lebanese judge freezes assets of central bank governor