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The Legal Whirlwind Around Lebanon’s Departing Central Bank Governor

Riad Salameh’s 30 year tenure as governor of Lebanon’s central bank—now coming to an end—has been mired by financial mismanagement, corruption, and evasion of accountability. As of May 2023, Interpol has issued two red notices against the governor, which he continues to evade with the help of Lebanese authorities.

As the term of the world’s longest-serving central bank governor is set to be coming to an end after 30 years in July 2023, the headlines covering the judicial proceedings against Riad Salameh, governor of Lebanon’s central bank (also known as Banque Du Liban, BDL) have multiplied dramatically over the past months. With two Interpol red notices issued against Salameh, the man who was once seen as a ‘financial wizard‘ who kept the economy running (as if he had a ‘crystal ball’, according to an IMF official), is now officially a wanted man for the international community. At the time of writing, Salameh is still in office, denies every allegation, and refuses to step down unless a judicial decision is rendered against him. But international investigations might finally bring an end to his impunity. Though Salameh was long shielded by Lebanon’s political elite, several political figures of various parties are now calling for his resignation. Others, such as Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, seemingly fear that a dismissal of Salameh would further destabilize the country, which currently lacks both a president and a sitting government, the consequences of which the Lebanese people would have to carry once more.

The case of Salameh raised questions concerning the legal nature of red notices, as well as the consequences of the probes with regards to a potential dismissal of the BDL governor.  

Overview of the corruption probes against Salameh

In Lebanon, decades of financial mismanagement and corruption, with Salameh as one of the leading forces, led to the financial breakdown of the country in 2019, with the ongoing economic and financial crisis being ranked as one of the worst globally since the mid-19th century.

The jurisdiction of the respective European courts is generally established because the real estate and movable assets are located in those countries

In the beginning of 2021, Switzerland became the first country that started investigating allegations that Riad Salameh and his brother Raja embezzled more than $330 million to the detriment of BDL between 2002 and 2015. By now, at least four additional European countries (France, Germany, Luxemburg, and Liechtenstein) as well as two Lebanese prosecutors (Raja Hamouche and Ghada Aoun), have opened investigations into Salameh on various financial misconduct charges, including money laundering and massive embezzlement of public funds. The jurisdiction of the respective European courts is generally established because the real estate and movable assets are located in those countries. In March 2022, in the course of a joint action of German, French, and Luxembourg authorities, €120 million ($130 million) worth of Lebanese assets were frozen in five European countries as Salameh was a suspect in the investigated case. Within the framework of the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), which Lebanon ratified in 2009, Lebanese authorities received several requests for cooperation in accordance with Article 46 (1.) of UNCAC. Subsequently, European investigators visited Lebanon on three occasions between January and May 2023 to interrogate Salameh and others related to the corruption probes.

In May 2023, within just days, Salameh became the subject of two Interpol red notices following international arrest warrants issued by French and German courts. As per their usual practice, Lebanese authorities have refused to extradite a Lebanese national. The BDL governor was subjected to a travel ban and his Lebanese and French passports were confiscated, thus preventing him from traveling to France to appear before the French judges. This also at least removed his ability to travel to the United Arab Emirates, where he had planned to retire.

On the nature of red notices

Shortly after the first notice was issued by Interpol on the basis of the French arrest warrant on May 16, Salameh announced that he would “introduce an appeal to cancel the notice.” This raised questions on the legal nature of red notices and their enforceability.

Interpol (the International Criminal Police Organization), to which Lebanon has been a member state since 1949, is an inter-governmental institution that facilitates worldwide police cooperation. Its staff does not have powers of investigation and arrest, but its strength lies in one of its communication and coordination tools, the red notices. Per Article 82 of Interpol’s Rules on the Processing of Data, a red notice is a request to law enforcement worldwide to “seek the location of a wanted person and his/her detention, arrest or restriction of movement for the purpose of extradition, surrender, or similar lawful action.” It is based on an arrest warrant or court order issued by the judicial authorities in the requesting country. Member countries apply their own laws in deciding whether to pursue the request and arrest a person.

In the case of France, Aude Buresi, the examining magistrate in charge of the investigation into the European assets of Salameh, had summoned the central bank governor to the Paris Magistrates’ Court for questioning. Salameh failed to attend the hearing, on the grounds that the judge had not respected the required time period for the summoning, as the documents had not reached Salameh in time. Unsurprisingly, the competent Judge in Beirut reportedly attempted to notify Salameh of his summons to France three times in a row, but the document was always returned unsigned, as the governor could not be found at the BDL headquarters. Following this, the French magistrate had two options: reconvene Salameh or issue an international arrest warrant. She chose the latter option, and the requested red notice was issued.

The red notice, while being based on a judicial decision—the French arrest warrant—itself lacks judicial nature. It does not compel national law enforcement to arrest the subject of a notice, and Salameh cannot ‘appeal’ it

The red notice, while being based on a judicial decision—the French arrest warrant—itself lacks judicial nature. It does not compel national law enforcement to arrest the subject of a notice, and Salameh cannot ‘appeal’ it. This would be different if a Lebanese investigating judge was to question Salameh. Under Article 106 of the Lebanese Criminal Procedure, the judge could issue an arrest warrant, and Salameh could file an appeal under Article 107 of the Criminal Procedure.

Lastly, although Articles 30 through 36 of the Lebanese Penal Code allow for exceptions to the general rule that “Nobody may be extradited to a foreign state” (per Article 30), Lebanese authorities are unlikely to extradite Salameh, as they have traditionally ignored Interpol red notices in the past.

“Removal” from the office

It is similarly unlikely that the caretaker government will move to dismiss the BDL governor from his office. The cabinet already opted to defer the case to the judiciary. Irrespective of the conditions set forth in Article 19 of Lebanon’s Monetary and Credit Law, that provides for the removal of the governor in exceptional cases, the current cabinet is governing the country only in a caretaker function, with limited functions and powers. As long as the office of the presidency is vacant, some argue that members of the cabinet cannot convene to decide on any matter; and if they do convene, the necessary majorities of the votes for decisions in such constellations are even more a subject of discussion between legal experts. Therefore, the easy way out of a “tug-of-war” between different factions within the cabinet is to leave the matter to the judiciary, which, in turn, sees its work regularly impeded and meddled with by the executive. The judge that led the preliminary investigation in one of the Lebanese probes against Salameh was reportedly prevented from accessing data from banks. Attempts to force Salameh into questioning, with the State Security raiding three different locations in Lebanon (after he had not responded to the summons three times), failed, as Salameh was once again, nowhere to be found.


Although the Lebanese authorities missed the opportunity to show a sign of commitment to international cooperation in the fight against corruption, the European investigations have undoubtedly unleashed public pressure on Salameh and are driving him into a corner. The initiators of the French investigation expect the investigation to be completed by the end of 2023, with the trial possibly starting in 2024. The trial could proceed with the presence of Salameh’s lawyers and the judgment could be delivered in absentia. With a conviction of Salameh, according to a 2021 French law based on the Merida Convention, the assets seized from Salameh could be returned to the Lebanese people under the decisive condition that the Lebanese authorities can prove that the assets will indeed be returned to the people. On a final note, beyond holding Riad Salameh individually accountable, his conviction would set a signal of hope for a nation that is constantly witnessing a culture of impunity and where an independent judiciary seems to remain a theoretical concept rather than a reality.

Valeska Heldt is a fully qualified German lawyer, currently working as a Research Fellow at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) Rule of Law Programme for the Middle East & North Africa based in Beirut, Lebanon.

This analysis was originally published as a feature piece in Issue 2 of the Rule of Law Developments in the Middle East and North Africa newsletter, produced by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Rule of Law Programme Middle East & North Africa and TIMEP.


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