Statement by the Independence of the Judiciary Coalition on the Charging of Riad Salameh: A Positive Step, But…

Statement by the Independence of the Judiciary Coalition on the Charging of Riad Salameh: A Positive Step, But…

On 23 February 2023, Appellate Advocate General in Beirut Raja Hamoush charged Banque du Liban Governor Riad Salameh, his brother Raja, his assistant Marianne Howayek, and anyone else exposed by the investigation with money laundering, embezzlement, tax evasion, and forgery. This charge follows approximately two years of investigations, which began after a letter was received from the Swiss Federal Public Prosecution in late 2020. The transfers linked to the Salameh brothers suggest that they illicitly benefited from Banque du Liban to the tune of over 300 million dollars.


The Public Prosecution’s investigation into the case, conducted by Cassation Advocate General Jean Tannous, encountered several difficulties: reluctance by the banks to provide the Public Prosecution with banking information, interference by the prime minister to block raids on the banks, months of procrastination by the Special Investigation Commission when it came to intervening to supply the requested information, and, ultimately, a maljudging case filed by one bank and Salameh based on Tannous’ decisions in order to suspend the investigation. Moreover, after the investigation ended in August 2022, the Public Prosecution offices handed responsibilities off to one another to avoid having to charge Salameh. Salameh also filed a case to disqualify Public Prosecutor in Beirut Ziad Abou Haidar in order to avoid being charged. This case only moved forward – with the acceptance of the request to disqualify Haidar and the appointment of Hamoush in his place – after the European delegation visited Lebanon in January 2023 in the framework of the cooperation requested under the United Nations Convention against Corruption.


While the Independence of the Judiciary Coalition (IJC) welcomes this long-awaited action, which is the natural path for the case to take now that the investigations have finished, it is also concerned about the following three things:


What Safeguards Ensure That the Investigating Judiciary Pursues the Case Earnestly?


The natural next step is for the Public Prosecution to refer the case to the first investigating judge, which in this instance is Charbel Abou Samra, who occupies the position in an acting capacity. This raises three concerns: Firstly, in recent years this judge has clearly facilitated impunity for influential figures in numerous cases. The most serious include the illicit enrichment case against Prime Minister Najib Mikati, which he dismissed on the basis that the prescription period had elapsed. This decision totally conflicted with the facts and the Illicit Enrichment Law, which explicitly excludes this offense from prescription. He also made the equally grave decision to dismiss the complaint filed against ministers of telecommunications Mohamed Choucair and Jamal Jarrah, among others, concerning the scandal of the lease and purchase of the Touch building. The decision was based on flimsy arguments and subsequently nullified by the Indictment Chamber. Secondly, Abou Samra is not specialized. Thirdly, he will reach retirement age within months. All these concerns could be overcome if he commits to assigning this task to another one of Beirut’s investigating judges rather than undertaking it directly.


What Safeguards Protect the Domestic Judiciary from Means of Obstruction?


In several previous statements, the IJC noted the rise of a practice that undermines judicial work: defendants’ filing of maljudging cases with the Full Bench of the Court of Cassation based on the actions of any investigating or trial judge. Such cases automatically and indefinitely halt the investigation, irrespective of whether they are earnest. This obstruction is open-ended because a political decision to abort the partial personnel charts that would have appointed replacements for retired chamber presidents has deprived the Full Bench of its quorum. This concern is especially troubling for two reasons. Firstly, Salameh has filed obstructionist cases before targeting prosecutors Tannous and Abou Haidar. Secondly, Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Minister of Interior Bassam Mawlawi have essentially given this tactic an official blessing to suspend the investigations in the case of the 9 billion dollars smuggled abroad, which was initiated by Public Prosecutor in Mount Lebanon Ghada Aoun.


What Safeguards Prevent the Investigation from Being Misused to Obstruct International Cooperation?


Finally, there are legitimate fears that the goal of charging the Salameh brothers could be to manufacture a pretext for refusing to cooperate with the European investigators, sparing them from interrogation in Lebanon by these investigators or charges in European countries. These fears are based on Paragraph 24 of Article 46 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which stipulates that a country that receives a cooperation request may postpone the mutual legal assistance if it would conflict with an ongoing investigation, prosecution, or judicial procedures.


Because of the foreign location of the money suspected to have been laundered, the deficiencies in judicial work in Lebanon and the gross obstructive interference besetting it, and the need for European expertise and information in this case, cooperation with European judicial bodies is in Lebanon’s interest. Hence, any invocation of Paragraph 25 under the present circumstances would be arbitrary and unjustified by any potential conflict with the Lebanese investigation, as well as go against the country’s interests. To the contrary, the investigation was initiated in 2020 because of documents that Lebanon received from Switzerland, and the charges would not have been made were it not for the European investigators’ progress and their recent visit to Lebanon. In other words, any refusal to cooperate based on these charges would violate the letter and spirit of the convention. It suffices to recall that Paragraph 26 of Article 46 obligates state parties to consult one another before rejecting or postponing any cooperation request and authorizes the cooperating states to establish terms that avoid any potential negative effects.


Hence, the IJC demands the following:


  1. We call on the Lebanese government to immediately suspend Banque du Liban Governor Riad Salameh’s powers, given the gravity of his charges and until they are adjudicated.


  1. We call on the acting first investigating judge to transfer the case to another investigating judge in Beirut in order to ensure continuity and expertise and boost confidence in the earnestness of the investigation.


  1. We call on judges to exercise further legal interpretation to prevent the absurd effects of the tactic of suing judges to undermine judicial work.


  1. Finally, we call for cooperation with the European investigators to continue because it is in Lebanon’s interest under the present circumstances. This cooperation increases, rather than decreases, judicial sovereignty.

This statement was originally published in Arabic on 24 January  2023 

Share the article

Mapped through:

Banks, Consumer Rights, Economy, Lebanon

For Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *