Hunting Ben Ali’s stolen cash
Assets found in Switzerland “a drop in the ocean”
Properties like this house near Tunis belonging to Ben Ali's clan were ransacked in the 2011 uprisings (AFP)
What a clever dictator: a year and a half after Switzerland first froze funds allegedly belonging to the entourage of former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, it has yet to find any assets belonging to the deposed leader himself.
“In light of developments in the case, the foreign ministry is now able to communicate that, at this point, the amount of $60 million (SFr55.65 million) does not include assets owned by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali himself,” the Swiss foreign ministry confirmed in a statement.
It is a situation which is raising hackles in Tunisia, where the $60 million found and linked to the Ben Ali-Trabelsi clan is considered insufficient, and where calls are growing for Switzerland and other western countries to do more to uncover and return stolen assets.
Crowing on Swiss television from Ben Ali’s lawyer, Akram Azoury, has done little to alleviate frustrations:
“President Ben Ali denied owning moveable assets, financial or real estate, outside Tunisia and notably in Switzerland. He doesn’t possess anything directly or indirectly, nor through intermediaries in Switzerland or elsewhere in the world,” Azoury said recently.
Acting on behalf of the Tunisian government in the affair, lawyer Enrico Monfrini says the fact that so little has been found indicates the presence of a sophisticated money laundering operation put in place by the former Tunisian ruler.
“It’s easy to say that Ben Ali doesn’t have an account in Switzerland. They know nothing about it. The money laundering strategy consists of it being done by people and companies which are less likely to be suspected of handling money stolen by a head of state,” Monfrini says.
“If Ben Ali’s lawyer made these declarations in Switzerland, it’s because Switzerland is practically the only country which gives the impression of being very active in this case. It’s a destabilising attempt in relation to the small amount, which is a drop in the ocean of the activities of the Ben Ali family.”
Deputy Swiss federal prosecutor Maria-Antonella Bino tells swissinfo.ch it is unlikely that the assets blocked to date will be topped up by a new discovery of millions belonging to Ben Ali himself, or his entourage.
“The amount of around $60 million initially revealed has not varied,” Bino says. “In the Tunisian case, the investigations have been going on for more than a year and a half. At this stage of the case and from what we know, it seems very unlikely that other assets that have been stolen from Tunisian government will be found in Switzerland.”
But Monfrini claims to have a list of some 300 names of people and companies suspected of having hidden assets on behalf of the Ben Ali-Trabelsi clan, and notes that a similar list maintained by the Swiss contains just 48 names, of which only a dozen or so are the subject of investigations.
“It this stage, this amount [of $60 million] is proof of failure. We are not progressing at all, when we could progress very quickly,” Monfrini says.
Monfrini says the Swiss prosecutor should apply more weight to the notion of “organised crime” which would reverse the burden of proof on to the accused, effectively forcing the people concerned to prove the origin of assets and be forced to return them to Tunisia in cases where they cannot.
“The means are available but nobody is pushing the button,” says Monfrini, who suggests that international pressure being applied to Switzerland over its financial sector could explain the attitude of the Swiss.
But Bino rejects Monfrini’s accusations that the Swiss are not doing enough or progressing fast enough on the Tunisian case. She notes that the prosecutor’s office must manage the case within the confines of the law and with respect to the rights of all parties involved.
“Mr Monfrini is a lawyer representing the interests of the Republic of Tunisia, which is a complainant to the criminal procedure taking place in Switzerland and which has a legitimate interest in seeing that the truth about the origin of the assets frozen in Switzerland should be revealed as soon as possible,” Bino says.
Bino notes that Swiss and Tunisian officials are working well together on the investigation, with rogatory letters for judicial assistance being processed on both sides.
“At this stage, the task of the federal prosecutor is to drive the investigations in a manner which respects the law and the rights of all parties. Considering the complexity of the inquiry, I think that we are progressing in a very satisfactory manner.
“But as with all judiciary proceedings, the people targeted benefit from the right to appeal, which they generally exercise.”
Despite his critique of the progression of the case, Monfrini, who has an international mandate to recoup assets stolen by the Ben Ali clan, says Switzerland remains the country which has progressed the furthest in this area. In comparison he points to France, where it is believed the Ben Ali clan hid considerable assets and where he says there is a “flagrant” lack of human resources devoted to uncovering the hidden millions.
“In France … an excellent magistrate, Roger le Loire, is alone in managing the Tunisian, Libyan and Egyptian cases,” he says. “I have a list of a number of buildings, hotels, restaurants, land and apartments which belong to Ben Ali’s sidekicks. I hope that the new French government will take the matter in hand.”
Meanwhile, Monfrini describes the situation in Canada as “catastrophic” and says he still hasn’t managed to contact the relevant officers in charge of the case.
“All I know is that Tunisia has sent Canada an international arrest warrant for Belhassen Trabelsi, one of the key players in the clan. Other than that, nothing has happened,” he says, adding that he has uncovered tips on hidden funds in other countries.
“We are starting to find some interesting leads in Monaco, Belgium and in other countries. The sums found in Switzerland might be small compared to what is hidden in other countries.”