Lebanon central bank chief’s brother misses European fraud probe hearing

BEIRUT (Reuters) -The brother of Lebanon’s central bank governor did not attend a hearing in Beirut on Tuesday with European investigators probing whether the siblings embezzled and laundered hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds over more than a decade.

Governor Riad Salameh is being investigated alongside his brother Raja in Lebanon and in at least five European countries over allegedly taking more than $300 million from the central bank by collecting commissions as a fee from bond buyers then transferring the funds to Forry Associates, owned by Raja.

The brothers deny wrongdoing. A lawyer for Raja, 62, did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

European investigators arrived in Beirut on Monday and were set to question Raja as part of the probe on both Tuesday morning and Wednesday.

Raja did not attend Tuesday’s hearing. A senior judicial source told Reuters that his lawyer attended briefly to tell investigators that his client would be unable to meet them for the next week due to health reasons.

The governor, 72, has previously denied embezzlement, saying the collected commissions were not public funds.

According to French court documents seen by Reuters, French prosecutors say money from Forry was used to make “numerous” real estate purchases across Europe and the United Kingdom.

The documents say prosecutors suspect Riad used fake banking documents in Raja’s name to cover up illicit sources of wealth.

European investigators questioned the governor in Beirut over two days in March, asking about the central bank’s links to Forry, his assets abroad, the source of his wealth and transfers he made to associates and relatives.

The investigators have returned to pursue interrogations of Raja and of an assistant, Marianne Houayek, both of whom they have identified as suspects according to a schedule seen by Reuters.

The three have been charged with financial crimes in two separate cases in Lebanon but have not yet been formally and publicly charged in the investigating European countries.

The European investigators are also set to question caretaker finance minister Youssef el-Khalil, who still serves as the central bank’s head of financial operations, as well as other top officials of the bank.

French prosecutors have informed Riad that they intend to press charges of fraud and aggravated money laundering during a planned hearing in France on May 16.

A lawyer for Salameh said earlier this month his client had not yet decided if he would attend the French hearing.

Last spring, Raja was held in Lebanese custody for nearly two months over charges of “complicity in illicit enrichment” that also involved his brother.

Raja was released on a record bail of 100 billion Lebanese pounds, or around $3.7 million at the market exchange rate at the time.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily and Laila BassamEditing by Christina Fincher)