Switzerland says it will continue to freeze the assets of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in a bid to keep them out of the hands of his family.
The latest move in the long-running saga immediately followed a Federal Court decision to reverse a lower court's ruling that a large share of the $5.7 million (SFr6 million) in Swiss accounts should have gone to charities working in Haiti.
Duvalier’s family and supporters have petitioned to reclaim the money.
“In view of the criminal origin of these funds, [the government] in this way avoids releasing the approximately $5.7 million for the benefit of the Duvalier clan,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
It added that the move was in line with government policy “to avoid allowing the Swiss financial centre to become a haven for illicitly acquired assets”.
The government said it had instructed the foreign ministry to complete by the end of this month work on drafting a federal law that would allow such assets to be confiscated.
Earlier in the day Switzerland’s highest court said the family of Jean-Claude Duvalier could reclaim at least $4.6 million that had previously been awarded to aid groups.
The top court said Duvalier’s alleged crimes fell outside the statute of limitations, reversing an August decision by a lower court. That court found the Duvalier family had acted as a "criminal organisation" by diverting public funds through a Liechtenstein foundation to accounts in Swiss bank UBS.
The Supreme Court said it was unhappy about the ruling but that its hands were tied because the statute of limitations expired in 2001. It urged lawmakers to make it easier for assets belonging to deposed dictators to be repatriated to national governments.
The court rendered its decision on January 12, hours before the earthquake struck Haiti, but only announced it on Wednesday.
Urgent legal review
“This case shows how urgently we need a new law,“ Mark Pieth, a professor of criminology at Basel University, told the Swiss News Agency. “The conditions of the current draft are so narrow, that it’s practically impossible to pay back the funds.”
A coalition of non-governmental organizations expressed relief at the government’s last-minute move and concern at the Federal Court decision.
“The earthquake should have facilitated the return of this money to Haiti,” the group said in a statement. “Existing legal loopholes are damaging, both for Switzerland and for the country of origin of these funds.”
The coalition, which includes Transparency International Switzerland and the Bern Declaration, said it would be closely following the upcoming talks on the new draft law governing the confiscation of illicit assets to ensure full transparency and the involvement of civil society groups in future procedures.
“This an essential prerequisite to ensure returned funds do not disappear into inexistent or already completed projects, as was the case with the [Nigerian] Abacha funds in 2006, or into the pockets of a privileged few,” it added.
“Baby Doc’s” family had appealed against a federal penal court decision to unfreeze the assets and give them to authorities in Haiti.
The family argues that the money is part of the personal fortune of Baby Doc's mother. However the penal court said she was part of the same criminal organisation headed by his father, who preceded him in office, and that she had benefited from the systematic embezzlement of funds which he had operated.
Many Haitians accuse Duvalier and his entourage of stealing over $100 million from public funds before he was ousted in 1986.
Duvalier is believed to be living in exile in Paris and has always denied wrongdoing. No legal proceedings have been launched against the Duvalier family in Haiti.
Haiti made its first request for the money in 1986, shortly after Duvalier's ouster.
It has been frozen ever since, but Switzerland has refused to give it back to Haiti because the Haitian government wasn't charging Duvalier with any crimes in its own justice system. As a way out, the Swiss government had proposed giving the money to aid groups working in Haiti.
Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey paid a brief visit to Port-au-Prince in Haiti on January 31, where she visited aid workers and met President René Préval to discuss the Duvalier funds, among other issues.
Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch
The Duvalier-Swiss accounts affair has been going on for the past 25 years.
April 4 1986: Haitian government asks Switzerland to freeze Duvalier assets in Swiss banks.
June 14, 2002: Swiss cabinet decides to block assets for three years.
January 2008: Geneva cantonal investigating judge said the 1986 request for legal assistance was inadmissible due to the statute of limitations. But funds remain frozen due to a government decree.
May 2008: Haiti applies for the case to be reopened and the Swiss Justice Office agrees to provide judicial assistance.
August 2009: The Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona rejected an appeal by the Duvalier family, which had wanted to reclaim the money. The court said the Duvalier family had failed to prove that the money was of legitimate origin. It added that the Duvalier family had diverted public funds into the Swiss accounts through a Liechtenstein foundation which was tantamount to a "criminal organisation".
January 12, 2009: The Federal Court turned down a bid from the Federal Justice Office to have the money returned to benefit the country’s population.
Jean-Claude Duvalier came to power in Haiti after his father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier died in 1971. He was 19 years old, making him the world's youngest ruler at the time.
While his father had been known for ruling with an iron fist, the younger Duvalier did make some steps to relax that grip and the United States restarted foreign aid programmes. However, the country remained an oppressed police state.
Observers say much of the money that Duvalier pilfered came from tobacco funds that had no accounting.
People began to revolt against the dictator shortly after Pope John Paul II visited the country (80% Catholic) and publicly called for better distribution of wealth. By 1986 he was forced to flee to France; he is rumoured to be living in Paris with little money.