Freeze continues on African dictators’ assets

Switzerland is still working to return nearly one billion francs ($1.1 billion) in frozen assets to needy North African countries who deposed autocratic leaders in the Arab Spring, the foreign affairs ministry says.

The Swiss government continues to hold 700 million francs in assets from ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his associates, frozen since his departure from power in 2011, Valentin Zellweger, the head of the foreign ministry's international law department, said in Geneva on Tuesday.

It also holds 60 million francs in funds linked to ousted Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali since he left the country early the same year, Zellweger said.

Switzerland is currently working with the new administrations in those countries to find a way to return the funds to the Egyptian and Tunisian people, he said.

Following separate UN Security Council resolutions, Switzerland blocked 100 million francs from Libya and another 100 million francs from Syria, Zellweger said.

Asked why the restitution of funds to Tunisia and Egypt was taking so long, he said the onus was on those nations, since "it is they who determine the speed of the procedures."

"Switzerland is confronted in Egypt and Tunisia with cases unprecedented in size," Zellweger said.

In Tunisia's case, Switzerland held the accounts of 48 people close to Ben Ali, while 32 people linked to Mubarak had their holdings frozen in the Egyptian case, he said, adding that each account had registered between 250 and 2,000 separate transactions.

When asked about the relatively modest amount of frozen Tunisian funds, Zellweger cited two possible explanations:

Either "the Ben Ali clan did not like Switzerland" and had therefore placed its funds elsewhere, or the Swiss measures taken to avoid suspicious funds "worked well, and Swiss banks refused the funds," he said.

Switzerland is the only country that has published the amount of funds it has frozen, Zellweger said.

But he could not predict how long it would take to return the cash to its countries of origin, where in most cases the money is desperately needed for reconstruction or democratization efforts in the vacuum left by the departed dictators.

The fastest such procedure ever carried out by Switzerland took five years, ending in 1998 with the restitution of blocked funds linked to Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha after his reign ended with his death in 1998.
While frozen in Switzerland, the funds are managed conservatively, and any interest gains are returned to the country in question, along with the capital.

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