BEIRUT: Lebanese security forces on Tuesday raided the offices and home of Lebanon’s central bank governor, Riad Salameh, over links to charges of illicit enrichment and money laundering.
Mount Lebanon’s state prosecutor, Judge Ghada Aoun, who is heading the case against the banker, joined guards who entered the bank’s Hamra Street premises in Beirut hoping to arrest Salameh.
However, the raid ended after Beirut public prosecution judge, Raja Hamouche, asked state security agents to clear the building.
Furious bank employee representatives later announced a three-day strike in protest at the raid.
Aoun, who brought the charges against Salameh in March, said: “We were told that the central bank’s governor was not there, and the court of cassation public prosecutor didn’t respond to us.”
The incident sparked criticism in some quarters, and one judicial source said: “Judge Aoun doesn’t have any power in Beirut. She’s a judge in Mount Lebanon and she doesn’t have the right to cross her powers.”
At the same time, security forces also raided Salameh’s house in the Rabieh area of Mount Lebanon. The governor was not present at either premises.
The central bank governor’s monetary policy has been partly blamed for contributing to Lebanon’s economic meltdown and currency crisis.
Salameh has claimed that “the state borrowed money from the central bank and promised to implement reforms but did not,” and he held politicians accountable “for what is happening.”
But he has failed to appear for questioning before Aoun on five occasions, considering the judge’s prosecution to be “part of a systematic process to distort” his image.
A statement released on his behalf, said: “A judge cannot be an enemy and a referee at the same time. Political reasons are behind the lawsuit filed against him.”
Aoun has refused to be notified of a lawsuit filed by Salameh’s attorneys against her at the beginning of the year requesting her removal from the case. She previously prosecuted him five times and imposed a travel ban on him.
In March, she arrested his brother, Raja Salameh, for questioning over “suspicions of money laundering, embezzlement, illicit enrichment, and smuggling of large money sums abroad.”
Meanwhile, angry employees at the central bank condemned Tuesday’s raid.
Abbas Awada, head of the bank’s employees’ syndicate, said: “The dignity of the bank and its employees is above anything, and we refuse to be treated in this militia-like way.”
And he announced a three-day strike, “to let the rational people intervene and protect the institution.”
An employees’ syndicate statement said: “Judge Ghada Aoun and her security personnel entered the bank ... without due process of law, which hit the dignity of the bank and its employees.”
The syndicate called on Lebanon’s justice minister, president of the supreme judicial council, and state general prosecutor, “to put an end to these inappropriate actions of judge Ghada Aoun, which deviate from all legal principles ... so that we don’t announce an open strike.”
It also appealed for concerned individuals to, “protect the institution of the central bank and its employees, especially that it is the only institution operating at full capacity in Lebanon despite the difficult circumstances.”
Awada added: “We are not defending governor Salameh, but the institution as an entity. If there’s any clean institution in this country, it’s the central bank.”
Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati said he regretted, “the way sensitive judicial files related to the country’s monetary stability are being treated, wreaking havoc.
“I said it before and I say it now, we are not defending anyone, but we hold on to a fair, non-discretionary judiciary while ensuring Lebanon’s financial reputation internationally.
“What is required is to solve this case with a prior political agreement on a new central bank governor, and let the case take its appropriate legal course afterward.”
Lebanese member of parliament, Marwan Hamadeh, described the raid as “folkloric and a show-off,” adding that, “a state of insanity is surrounding the president’s term and his entourage, only causing the country devastation, destruction, and bankruptcy.
“Isn’t it the current president who said that ‘we are going to hell’? That was the only truth he told throughout his term.”
President Michel Aoun is seeking to appoint a new governor of the central bank before the end of his term in October, as part of his ongoing demand for a criminal investigation into its financial operations.