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Lebanon's central bank governor set to end his tenure a wanted man

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh speaks during an interview in Beirut

By Maya Gebeily and Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Once celebrated as a financial wizard, Lebanese central bank governor Riad Salameh is spending his final weeks in office a wanted man, faced with French and German arrest warrants that have been prompted by long-running corruption probes.

The warrants are the latest twist in cross-border investigations into whether Salameh, the governor for three decades whose term ends in July, abused his post to embezzle a fortune in Lebanese public money. He denies any wrongdoing.

The cases have further shredded a legacy already in tatters after the collapse of Lebanon's financial system in 2019, a catastrophe many blame on Salameh and Lebanon's ruling elite.

It has shone a spotlight on 72-year-old Salameh's ties to ruling politicians, whose backing for him has only started to fray in recent months as European investigations progressed.

Interpol has issued a Red Notice and uploaded his picture on its website. France has declared him a wanted man.

Some Lebanese ministers and leading politicians now say he must quit, although others have remained silent, including Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Salameh, who has long described the accusations as an attempt to scapegoat him for Lebanon's meltdown, has shown no sign of stepping down early.

"My conscience is clear. I know these accusations are incorrect," he told Al Hadath TV last week, adding that he would leave office if a court ruled against him.

Many Lebanese for years viewed Salameh, who took up his post in 1993 after a career at Merrill Lynch, as the linchpin of a financial system that afforded them a standard of living that was incongruous with Lebanon's frail economy.

But in 2019 Lebanon's economic system crashed under the weight of state corruption and profligate spending by ruling factions, and many Lebanese have heaped blame on Salameh for the country's collapsing currency and crippled banking system.

REVERSAL OF FORTUNES

It is a dramatic reversal for a man once feted for steering Lebanon through the global financial crisis and who was a prominent speaker at international banking conferences.

Now, he is rarely seen in public and a source close to him said he spends most of his time inside the central bank, receiving few guests and leaving only when necessary.

"He can't be in public places, or private visits, or conferences, or his many homes," the source said.

Salameh did not respond to questions on this.

The investigations centre on commissions which the central bank charged banks on the purchase of government securities, the proceeds from which went to Forry Associates, a company controlled by Raja Salameh, Salameh's brother.

The Salameh brothers deny diverting or laundering any public funds and deny any wrongdoing.

The probes have provided a glimpse into Salameh's life, including his relationship with a Ukrainian woman - Anna Kosakova - with whom he has a daughter. French prosecutors said in December they had placed Kosakova under investigation on suspicion of aggravated money laundering as part of the probe.

Kosakova and her lawyer in France did not respond to requests by Reuters for comments for this article or to previous requests.

As part of its investigation, France's judiciary has summoned Salameh's brother Raja and one of Salameh's assistants, Marianne Howayek. In another probe, a Lebanese judge questioned Lebanese actress Stephanie Saliba in December over suspicions Salameh bought her luxury property using ill-gotten gains, among the list of accusations against him the governor denies.

A lawyer for Howayek did not respond to a Reuters request for comment. Saliba, who also did not respond, said in a video on social media after her interrogation that she had suffered an injustice without mentioning any accusations against her.

Interpol's Red Notice for Salameh cited charges of money laundering, fraud and participation in a criminal association with a view to committing offences punishable by 10 years of imprisonment.

GOVERNOR TO FIGHT ON

Salameh has vowed to challenge the French warrant, issued after he failed to attend a Paris hearing where prosecutors had been expected to press preliminary fraud and money laundering charges. He said the warrant violated the law.

Germany has also issued a warrant for Salameh on charges including forgery, money laundering and embezzlement, a Lebanese judge said.

The Munich public prosecutor's office acknowledged it was involved in the case but said it did not comment as a matter of principle on warrants that have been applied for or issued.

Salameh told Reuters he had not received any notification from Germany.

Salameh, his brother Raja and Howayek were charged in Lebanon with money laundering, embezzlement and illicit enrichment in February.

But critics have long doubted how seriously the case would be pursued in Lebanon, where politicians can have sway over the judiciary. The judiciary's independence is enshrined in the constitution, yet even Lebanon's top judge complained of meddling last year.

Lebanon's justice minister and the deputy prime minister have both said Salameh should quit now. But Environment Minister Nasser Yassin told Reuters opinions in the cabinet were divided at a meeting on Monday.

"What's surreal is that despite everything, he's still not willing to step down," Yassin said.

(Additional reporting by Friederike Heine in Germany; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Edmund Blair)