BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese judge Tuesday issued a travel ban for the country’s central bank governor, state-run National News Agency and a lawyer said. The move comes after a corruption lawsuit accused him of embezzlement and dereliction of duty during the country's financial meltdown, .
The decision was the first judicial action taken by authorities in Lebanon against Riad Salameh, who is being investigated in several countries abroad for potential money laundering.
It was not immediately clear if the ban will be implemented. Salameh, 71, has been in the post for nearly three decades and enjoys backing from most politicians, including the country’s prime minister, despite the country's devastating economic crisis and banking sector collapse.
The travel ban was issued by Ghada Aoun, an investigating judge for the Mount Lebanon district, based on an investigation into a case filed by lawyers of an anti-corruption group known as the People Want to Reform the Regime.
Aoun’s decision came as the value of the Lebanese pound tumbled to new lows on Tuesday, reaching 33,500 to the U.S. dollar. The pound has lost more than 90% of its value since the meltdown began, including nearly 10% of its value since the beginning of the year.
Salameh was once touted as the guardian of Lebanon’s monetary stability and praised for steering the country's finances through post-war recovery and bouts of unrest. But he has come under intense scrutiny since the small country’s economic meltdown began in late 2019, with many experts now questioning his monetary policies.
Haitham Ezzo, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit against Salameh, said the governor violated his official duty to protect the national currency and the banking sector. He said Salameh is also criminally responsible, saying the suit provides new evidence that he abused his position for personal gain.
“We filed a criminal case against him ... and we asked for a number of things starting with a ban on his traveling,” Ezzo said. The second request was to reveal the fate of Lebanon’s huge gold reserves that are worth billions of dollars.
Salameh is being investigated in Switzerland, Luxembourg and France for potential money laundering and embezzlement. Local media reported in recent months that Salameh, his brother and an aide have been involved in illegal businesses, including money transfers abroad despite the informal capital controls imposed at home.
Ezzo said they have evidence that Salameh has rented an apartment in Paris’ Champs Elysee for the central bank at an overvalued price, accusing him of embezzling the difference.
Salameh, who has repeatedly denied making such transfers, said in November that he asked for an audit of transactions and investments during his tenure and the results showed no public money has been misused.
Salameh has said that he was wealthy before he became central bank governor in 1993.
Lebanon’s economic crisis — rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement — has been described by the World Bank as one of the worst the world has witnessed since the 1850s.
“How can I trust a person who said the pound is doing well. How can I trust a person who said the banks are not bankrupt but they really are,” said Ezzo.
Last month, Prime Minister Najib Mikati was asked whether he plans to remove Salameh from the post. Mikati responded: “During wars you don’t change officers.”
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed reporting.