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EU states freeze USD130M worth of Lebanese assets

BEIRUT (AP) – Authorities in three European countries have frozen more than USD130 million in assets linked to an investigation into money laundering in Lebanon, an European Union (EU) agency said on Monday.

The measures taken by officials in France, Germany and Luxembourg come as Lebanon grapples with an economic crisis and coincide with domestic and European investigations of its long-time central bank governor, Riad Salameh. The crisis, which started in October 2019, is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement.

The EU Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust), said the investigation targets five suspects accused of money laundering.

It did not identify the five, adding that they are suspected of embezzling public funds in Lebanon amounting to more than USD330 million and EUR5 million (USD5.5 million) respectively, between 2002 and 2021.

It said the assets that were frozen on Friday amount to EUR120 million (USD131.6 million).

It was not immediately clear if the case is linked to the investigation of Salameh, who was charged by a Lebanese judge earlier this month with illegal enrichment and money laundering.

Salameh’s brother, Raja, has been under arrest since March 17, over corruption charges. The Salameh brothers’ assets have been frozen in Lebanon under an order from a judge in the Lebanese money laundering case. A Lebanese judge had said that Riad Salameh had used his brother to buy real estate in France worth nearly USD12 million.

There have also been reports that a brokerage firm, Forry Associates Ltd, owned by Raja Salameh, was hired by the central bank to handle government bond sales in which the firm received USD330 million in commissions.

Eurojust said the suspects in the main investigation “are assumed to be innocent until they have been proven guilty, according to law“.

It said judicial authorities in Germany seized assets worth more than EUR35 million (USD38.4 million).

French authorities seized assets worth at least EUR18.2 million (USD20 million) and bank accounts worth EUR46 million (USD50.5 million) in Monaco. They also seized a building in Brussels worth EUR7 million (USD7.7 million). In Luxembourg, approximately EUR11 million (USD12 million) were seized across several bank accounts, it said.

A Lebanese banker said the Eurojust statement “did not give any hint, or proof or a fact that the assets frozen are linked or related in any way into Forry’s operations“, although he noted the numbers involved were similar. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.