European officials to begin Lebanon graft questioning next week

A woman walks outside of Lebanon's Central Bank building in Beirut

BEIRUT (Reuters) -European investigators will arrive in Lebanon on Jan. 16 as part of a cross-border probe into alleged state fraud, Lebanon's caretaker justice minister said on Wednesday.

French, German and Luxembourg judicial officials will seek to "interrogate people" in relation to suspected financial crimes, Henry Khoury told reporters.

Judicial sources had earlier told Reuters that French, German and Luxembourg investigators would travel to Lebanon to probe the case of Riad Salameh, who has served as Lebanon's central bank governor for the last three decades.

They suspect Salameh and his brother Raja may have illegally taken more than $300 million from the Lebanese central bank between 2002 and 2015 and laundered some of it in Switzerland, according to Swiss court documents seen by Reuters.

Salameh, 72, has denied any wrongdoing. He says the probes are part of a coordinated campaign to make him a scapegoat for Lebanon's 2019 financial collapse. His brother has also denied any wrongdoing.

In Germany, prosecutors have said they were investigating the possibility that some of the funds identified by Swiss authorities were used to acquire real estate, notably in Munich.

French prosecutors are trying to determine whether the Salameh brothers used some of those funds to acquire real estate in France, including part of a building on the Champs Elysees, according to people familiar with the matter.

Luxembourg's judiciary in November 2021 confirmed it had opened a criminal case into Salameh, but declined to comment further.

The European investigators will seek to question central bankers, Lebanese financial officials and the heads of several prominent commercial banks as witnesses, a senior judicial source told Reuters.

Only one person, a private broker, would be questioned as a suspect in the case and Salameh would likely not be interrogated in the first round, the source added.

The source said the investigators had requested bank account information from the Lebanese judiciary. It was not immediately clear whether they would be granted access to the data.

The interrogations and request for data were all carried out via the Lebanese judiciary, according to Khoury.

The European Observatory for Integrity in Lebanon said in an online statement on Wednesday that Lebanon's judiciary had received requests to interrogate commercial auditors of Lebanon's central bank.

It said that among those visiting would be French investigative judge Aude Buresi, who last visited Lebanon in May 2022 to advance probes into Salameh and his brother.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Maya Gebeily; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Josie Kao)