The central bank governor, who has been the subject of legal investigations in at least six different jurisdictions, remains in office undisturbed for the time being. He continues to deal with the fallout from one of the worst economic crises in modern history with the help of circulars and without an exit plan. A crisis that was helped to create by the one who headed the country’s top financial organization for almost three decades.

The situation was already unique. From Tuesday [16 mai]it became unbelievable “A Mussal [“feuilleton télévisé”, en arabe] from our house, blowing the user.

[Ce jour-là]a few hours after the appearance, which never took place, French justice issues an international arrest warrant for Riad Salameh, the Governor of the Bank of Lebanon (BDL).

France is one of five European countries that have opened an investigation into the man and his entourage on charges ranging from illicit enrichment to embezzlement, including tax evasion.

Strong signal from French justice

After filing at least two indictments, Parisian investigating judge Ode Bourezi reiterated her intention to send a strong message to the Lebanese authorities. A mini-quake across the country and beyond, and France’s decision could complicate Salameh’s travel abroad.

The case is currently on hold with several unknowns. Riad Salame can still react – he announced his intention to appeal. This was announced on Tuesday by outgoing Interior Minister Bassam Maulawi. [16 mai] that the Governor cannot be arrested or prosecuted in Lebanon without an arrest warrant issued by Interpol. Issuance of the last [qui a eu lieu deux jours plus tard] will this not automatically lead to the cooperation of the Lebanese authorities [qui, traditionnellement, refusent d’extrader leurs ressortissants] ? At the moment it is impossible to answer this question.

Despite these gray areas, the situation remains unprecedented. Attacking a senior Lebanese official, the judge [française] open the door of justice. Chanez Mensou, advocacy and litigation manager for the French non-governmental organization Sherpa, on the initiative of filing a complaint in France and Luxembourg against the governor of the BDL notes:

“Symbolically, this is an important step that shows how serious the facts are in the eyes of French justice.”

Hariri, Ghosn, explosions in Beirut…

An important step, but not entirely unprecedented. Several arrest warrants have already been issued for prominent Lebanese figures.

At the request of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is responsible for investigating the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Interpol issued an international arrest warrant in 2011 for four suspects: Mustafa Badreddin, Salim Ayyash, Assad Sabra and Hussein Anaissi. All of them are members of Hezbollah and none of them will be arrested by local justice.

In May 2022, Lebanon received a red notice from Interpol based on an international arrest warrant issued by French justice for Carlos Ghosn, a former Renault-Nissan boss who had taken refuge in Lebanon since December 2019.

Each time, Lebanese justice refused to cooperate. By refusing to extradite his citizens, he allowed those wanted to escape prosecution.

“Unfortunately, the country is increasingly introducing a system of impunity, in which no one is held accountable – this applies to all types of serious crimes, starting with the double explosion in the port of Beirut. [En effet,] former minister Youssef Fenianos and current MP Ali Hassan Khalil continue to enjoy their freedom despite arrest warrants [locaux] ruled against them.” remember Nizar Sagie, lawyer and NGO director [juridique libanaise] legal agenda.

Several politicians were implicated in the explosion that claimed the lives of more than 220 people on August 4, 2020, but the procedure remains blocked at this stage due to numerous appeals from high-ranking officials prosecuted as part of the “investigation”.

In the Salameh case, will the suspect be allowed to remain in office until his term expires next July? Two factors make it possible to understand the reaction of the authorities. First, the case takes place within a more limited legal framework, namely the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which France and Lebanon have signed. Thus, the latter is theoretically forced to apply an arrest warrant. [international]even if it “mechanisms, the application of which is flexible enough to resist opposing political will”, Chanez Mensus says

[Après avoir émis la notice rouge, Interpol] can then force Lebanon to make a choice: comply with international cooperation procedures and deliver the suspect after his arrest on Lebanese soil, or enter into conflict with the French judicial authorities.

Beirut, the capital of impunity

Until, “the two judicial systems worked very well together”, notes Chanez Mensus. But if desired, Lebanon has the option to deny the request, she explains: “We touch on the essence of the sovereignty of the state, namely the bodily restriction of a person by virtue of a foreign judgment. […] Despite the fact that international law provides for such a mechanism, there are many examples where it is not applied, especially when it comes to citizens.”

However, in the long run, the country may lose out if it refuses to cooperate. “If the attention given to these institutions is considered insufficient, this may affect political relations with the countries concerned,” warns Nizar Sagie.

By choosing not to cooperate, Lebanon would also reaffirm its ambiguity about international justice. Beirut, the capital of impunity? Nothing new, some will say. Nizar Sagie regrets:

“Lebanon is becoming a country where powerful and influential people can get away from the law.”

This culture of impunity, exacerbated by the growing fragility of institutions during the crisis, has taken root at the very heart of public life, permeating the entire social fabric.