Swiss envoy, Lebanese FM held talks over central bank probe

Lebanon Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbi and Swiss ambassador Monika Schmutz Kirgoz held talks over central bank probe with regards to possible money laundering and embezzlement of funds

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s foreign minister held talks Monday with the Swiss ambassador to Beirut after Switzerland started a probe into possible money laundering and embezzlement at the Mideast country’s central bank.

Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbi and ambassador Monika Schmutz Kirgoz did not offer comments following their meeting, saying only that the probe is a matter that judicial authorities are dealing with.

Switzerland’s attorney general said last week he has asked Lebanon for cooperation into the probe, without offering further details. It’s not clear what prompted the Swiss investigation. Lebanon is facing its worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history.

Lebanon’s Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh denied last week he had made any transfers of the bank’s funds. On Monday, shortly after the meeting between Wehbi and Kirgoz, the governor issued a statement saying reports about large transfers “are very exaggerated and have nothing to do with reality.”

They allegedly aim to tarnish the image of the central bank and its governor “but lies won’t succeed,” said Salameh, who has been questioned by Lebanon’s prosecutor general, Judge Ghassan Oweidat.

Swiss legislator Fabian Molina has been campaigning for months for Swiss authorities to act against corruption in Lebanon. On Sunday, he said he was pleased “there is finally a movement in connection with the billions (of dollars) stolen from the Lebanese people.”

Molina added he expects the Swiss government and the Financial Market Authority to take action “to block further funds and prevent future cases of money laundering by Swiss banks.”

Lebanon is facing its worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history and as of late 2019, private banks enforced informal capital controls, limiting withdrawals and blocking transfers abroad. The value of Lebanon’s currency tumbled against the dollar amid an unprecedented shortage of foreign currencies.

The government defaulted on its foreign debts and began talks with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package.

Amid the chaos, reports surfaced of capital transfers, including by government officials.

A government-commissioned international audit of the central bank faltered after the New York-based company hired to do it said it was unable to acquire needed information and documents.

Salameh, who has held the central bank post since 1993, has defended his role, alleging a systematic campaign meant to hold him responsible for the country’s financial crisis.