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Morning brief

Another lawsuit against Salameh, ISF pelted with stones, lira’s latest plunge persists: Everything you need to know to start your Monday

Here’s what happened over the weekend and what to expect today, Monday, March 20

Another lawsuit against Salameh, ISF pelted with stones, lira’s latest plunge persists: Everything you need to know to start your Monday

Journalists wait near the Justice Palace in Beirut as Lebanon's central bank chief Riad Salameh attends a court hearing alongside European investigators, according to two judicial sources, on March 16, 2023. (Credit: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

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Lebanese Judge Helena Iskandar filed a lawsuit against Banque du Liban (BDL) Governor Riad Salameh in France late last week, before his second day of hearings attended by European investigators on Friday, a judicial source told L’Orient Today. Salameh again “denied any suspicion of money laundering,” a judicial source told AFP, remaining cool, calm and collected as he gave, what a Lebanese judge described to L’Orient Today as, “useful” answers to hundreds of very “probing” questions submitted by European investigators to the presiding Lebanese judge. Lebanese judge, Charbel Abou Samra — heading the Lebanese probe into Salameh’s alleged embezzlement of BDL funds through Forry Associates, a company owned by the BDL head’s brother Raja — repurposed last week’s hearings in light of European investigators’ return to Beirut after a series of questionings in January as part of their own probe into the BDL chief. The foreign investigators are expected to return in April for hearings with Raja Salameh as well as with Riad Salameh’s former assistant, Marianne Hoyek — who both face charges filed by Abou Samra. Salameh is the subject of at least five European probes, which last March resulted in multimillion dollar asset freezes against him and French charges issued last December against one of his former associates. Iskandar’s overseas case against Salameh, filed after she leveled local charges against him, attempts to protect Lebanon’s claim over assets, which would be confiscated from Salameh and his associates in the event of their conviction and would go to other plaintiffs suing the central bank chief abroad. In a statement published on Friday, Salameh said his first appearance before the judiciary was because he was called as a witness rather than as a suspect, decrying allegedly ill-willed charges filed against him during the past two years.

The Internal Security Forces announced yesterday that it had disabled bulldozers in Teffahta, near Nabatieh, in southern Lebanon, after clashes with dozens of civilians allegedly attempting to illegally excavate a nearby mountain to procure construction materials. Videos circulating on social media showed ISF members being pelted with stones by dozens of men. The ISF later claimed the group was part of an attempt to excavate a mountain, which is public property, by hundreds of individuals — who do not belong to any construction companies, as the head of the Teffahta municipality, Ibrahim Kawtharani, later told L’Orient Today. The ISF noted that attempts to encroach on public property “are continuing in more than one location in the surrounding area.” Kawtharani said that the individuals, citing Lebanon's economic crisis, were unresponsive to the municipality’s pleas to stop encroaching on natural resources. Last year, amid unusually harsh winter storms, prohibitively expensive fuel prices led citizens in North Lebanon to resort to illegal logging to secure firewood.

Celebratory gunfire resounded on Friday near the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, near Saida, after the Joint Palestinian factions turned over to the Lebanese Army a man suspected of killing a Fatah member. The Joint Palestinian factions announced their intention to turn in the suspect, Khaled Ala' al-Din, last week, after his group Osbat al-Ansar’s refusal to do so reportedly heightened tensions in the camp. The suspect allegedly killed a Fatah member during clashes in the camp at the start of the month, which also wounded several others. Approximately 54,000 Palestinian refugees live in the Ain al-Hilweh camp, along with thousands of other Palestinians who fled the war in Syria. The camp is regularly the scene of armed clashes between rival groups.

Several Christian MPs have accepted Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai’s invitation to a “day of prayer” scheduled for April 5. “In these times of Lent, we hope to be able to gather Christian MPs and the leaders of their parliamentary groups for a spiritual retreat,” Rai said on Friday, calling on all of the Lebanese Parliament’s 64 Christian MPs to attend. The Free Patriotic Movement and the Kataeb, as well as Renewal bloc MP Adib Abdelmassih, all confirmed they intend to participate in the retreat. Rai previously announced his intention to convene all Christian parties for a dialogue on the presidential elections, for which he drew up a list, obtained by L’Orient Today, of 10 potential consensus candidates. In his Sunday homily, Rai lamented that “parliament, the government, ministries and public administrations have been paralyzed” and decried the consequences of this paralysis. Lebanon has been in a presidential vacuum since Michel Aoun’s term in office ended on Oct. 31; meanwhile, 11 attempts by Parliament to name the next head of state have failed.

The lira continued its slide on the parallel market, reaching a new record low of LL112,000 to the dollar over the weekend. By Saturday, the lira had lost another LL10,000 within days since it breached the symbolic LL100,000 mark. The Banque du Liban (BDL) Sayrafa rate stood over LL80,000 as of Friday evening after continuing to rise every day since March 8 after almost doubling from LL45,400 to LL70,000 a week earlier. BDL interventions through the Sayrafa rate, allowing depositors to exchange a limited amount of lira to dollars at the stronger rate, have failed to halt the lira’s fall on the parallel market — especially amid commercial banks’ return to an open-ended strike decrying, among other things, judicial rulings against them.

In case you missed it, here’s our must-read story from yesterday: “A tool for peace in times of crisis: Yoga’s rise in Lebanon”

Compiled by Abbas Mahfouz

Want to get the Morning Brief by email? Click here to sign up.Lebanese Judge Helena Iskandar filed a lawsuit against Banque du Liban (BDL) Governor Riad Salameh in France late last week, before his second day of hearings attended by European investigators on Friday, a judicial source told L’Orient Today. Salameh again “denied any suspicion of money laundering,” a judicial source told AFP,...