It is a 16-page letter that has already caused much ink to flow, but the detailed content of which has never been made public. On November 27, 2020, the federal prosecutor Joël Pahud sent a request for mutual legal assistance to representatives of the Lebanese justice system. The channel is unusual: it was the Swiss Ambassador to Beirut, Monika Schmutz Kirgöz, who delivered this letter in Arabic personally to the Lebanese Minister of Justice, Marie-Claude Najm, who forwarded it to the prosecutor. general, also in person. Time had exclusive access to the Arabic version and to a French translation verified by Geneva lawyers.
The Public Ministry of the Confederation (MPC) details the movements of funds that it attributes to the governor of the Banque du Liban, Riad Salamé, 70, one of the most powerful men in the country, as well as his younger brother Raja. Both benefit from the presumption of innocence. For the MPC, they could have “committed acts of money laundering in Switzerland” to the detriment of the Banque du Liban, and this since 2002.
In June 2020:
An image of a savior
Riad Salamé, in office since 1993 and having survived eleven governments, is considered untouchable. He has long been revered as the savior of Lebanon, especially for his role during the financial crisis of 2008. But he is also considered to be the mastermind of the financial engineering which in 2019 threw the country into the worst economic crisis in its history. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese no longer have access to their savings. The revelation at the beginning of the year of the Swiss investigation into him had the effect of a bomb in Beirut.
A specific case
After analyzing thousands of pages from the Money Laundering Communication Office (MROS), the MPC lists a series of movements for a total estimated by Swiss prosecutors at more than $ 300 million . The prosecution is based on a contract dated April 6, 2002 between the Banque du Liban (BDL) and the company Forry Associates Ltd, registered in Tortola in the Virgin Islands and having an office in Beirut, the economic beneficiary of which would be Raja Salamé. . This contract, which would be signed by Riad Salamé and his brother, would empower Forry Associates to sell treasury bonds as well as BDL Eurobonds by receiving a placement commission. According to Swiss prosecutors, between April 2002 and October 2014, it would have allowed the arrival of more than $ 326 million in the account of Forry Associates at HSBC Private Bank (Switzerland) in Geneva, an account of which the beneficial owner would also be Raja Salamé.
In large part, these amounts designated as “commissions” or “costs” would have been, according to Swiss justice, immediately re-transferred to the personal account of Raja Salamé, still at HSBC, who would thus have been credited with 248 million dollars over the same period. Of this amount, 207 million would have been sent to five Lebanese institutions: Bankmed, Banque Misr Liban, Crédit Libanais, Banque Audi and Banque Saradar, at a time when the Lebanese pound, indexed to the dollar, was considered a safe investment. This time, no more question of commission, the transfers would display the mention “personal expenses”. Contacted by Time, HSBC Private Bank has indicated that it cannot comment on this case, for legal reasons.
In August 2020:
A detour through Panama
HSBC would however be only one stage of the movements that the MPC says in its letter to have noted. In January 2008, Westlake Commercial Inc, based in Panama City, opened an account with Julius Baer in Zurich. Its beneficial owner would be Riad Salamé. Between April 2008 and January 2012, he reportedly received more than $ 7 million from Forry Associates’ HSBC account. This Julius Baer account would henceforth be frozen by the Attorney General’s Office. Also in 2008, Riad Salamé would have opened another account in the same Zurich bank, this time in the name of the Banque du Liban. It was from the latter that he would have conducted one of the operations that most intrigued the Swiss authorities. On April 5, 2012, the governor allegedly asked the Zurich bank to transfer Lebanese treasury bonds in the amount of 153 million dollars to the Swiss Audi Bank in Beirut. But as underlined by the Swiss prosecution, this transaction would contain “unusual characteristics and points which are not clear”.
On the one hand, Riad Salamé would have executed this transaction with an individual signature on an account in the name of the central bank. Then, Julius Baer would have admitted facing the Swiss investigators not being able to confirm “the realization by the buyer of the transaction”. In other words, if the transaction really took place. Finally, the bank reportedly stated that it did not know the identity of the buyer or be able to say whether the price of the transaction corresponded to the market price. The Swiss prosecution writes that “it would seem that the transaction was organized so that there could be no accounting traces”.
Contacted, the Zurich bank declares “not being able to comment on its relations with potential customers”. The Public Prosecutor confirms that the procedure is in progress, but does not rule on the case any further. As for Riad Salamé and his brother Raja, to whom the MPC’s investigation in no way takes away the benefit of the presumption of innocence, they did not respond to the requests of the Time.
Another face of the country:
Fifty million in Swiss banks
As governor of the Lebanese central bank, Riad Salamé is what is known as a Politically Exposed Person (PEP). This statute requires a “special duty of care” on the part of banks by virtue of article 6 of the Federal Law on Money Laundering (LBA). But as the criminal proceedings of the MPC demonstrate, this would not have prevented him from opening several accounts in his own name in several establishments. The public prosecutor estimates having discovered “assets of Riad Salamé for an amount estimated at approximately 50 million dollars in banks in Switzerland”.
An account with UBS, too
The prosecution thus reveals that in addition to his account at Julius Baer, the governor of the Banque du Liban would have opened an account at UBS in April 2012. In four years, 7.5 million dollars would have been transferred from the account. Riad Salamé staff at Banque du Liban. All of these sums would have been invested in bonds.
In June 2016, it was with Credit Suisse this time that Riad Salamé opened an account, and credited it with $ 4.15 million from his Bank of Lebanon account. Finally, in 2018, the same modus operandi was repeated with Banque Pictet in Geneva. When this account was opened in 2018, 2 million euros would have been paid into it. On the same day, they would have been followed by a payment of 3 million dollars, still from Lebanon.
According to our information, the Geneva private bank contacted the Swiss authorities in August 2020, following an article on the governor published in the Lebanese newspaper. L’Orient-Le Jour. On October 27, the penal authority will officially request the freezing by means of a penal ordinance. It will do the same for accounts opened at Credit Suisse and UBS. When contacted, the three banking establishments replied that they could not comment on these procedures.
Real estate investments in Geneva and on La Côte
In its request for assistance, the MPC suspects that Riad Salamé has obtained real estate in Switzerland through two companies based in Geneva. The first is S., a public limited company registered in October 2010 and managed by a member of the governor’s family as well as a Geneva lawyer.
The company is registered with the lawyer’s office, but according to Swiss prosecutors, the real beneficiary would be Riad Salamé. They want as proof the following series of transactions: on October 25, 2011, nearly 1 million francs would have been transferred from the account of Forry Associates, the beneficiary of which would be the governor’s brother, to the account of S. opened with the Zurich bank EFG. Two weeks later, it is the company belonging to Riad Salamé, Westlake Commercial Inc, which would have paid 1.6 million to S. Finally, on November 4, 2013, the account of Forry Associates would have paid a little more than 2 million on the personal account of Raja Salamé, the governor’s brother. On the same day, this money would be returned to the account of the company S.
For Swiss prosecutors, these transfers would only be smokescreens. Indeed, it is another Geneva company which would house a property belonging to the Lebanese governor: Red Street 10.
A building in Morges
On August 7, 2019, she would have received from S. the sum of 7.3 million francs. The MPC believes that Riad Salamé would be the beneficiary of the Red Street 10 account at UBS. The federal prosecution adds that S.’s payment to Red Street 10 would have been used to buy real estate. In fact, after having owned shares in a building in the Old Town of Geneva, Red Street 10 now owns a rental building valued at 10 million francs and overlooking the lake in Morges. (VD). When contacted, the directors of these companies did not wish to speak.