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Illicit funds must be returned to Tunisia

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki says the Swiss are too slow in returning funds hidden by the Ben Ali clan Keystone

Tunisia is in urgent need of the money deposited in Swiss banks by ousted leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his clan, and wants Switzerland to speed up the process of its return, President Moncef Marzouki has told Swiss television.

Switzerland froze about SFr60 million ($62.7 million) at the beginning of 2011, as soon as the old regime was overthrown – the first country to do so.

But while welcoming the support which Switzerland had given Tunisia from the beginning, Marzouki was critical about the slowness with which moves to return the money were being made.

“You have no idea of how pressing this is for us. We have 800,000 unemployed. We have entire regions which are literally ready to explode, because people can no longer put up with their poverty. So we need the money now.”

The president also cast doubts on the amount of money said to have been deposited illicitly in Swiss banks.

“I hear vague talk of figures which seem ridiculously low to me. It’s no good just looking at personal accounts. Mr X and Mr Y deposited this or that sum of money. It’s not just Mr X and Mr Y. There are businesses, there are conglomerates, there are lots of things. A lot of money was stolen from this country. I would say the figures that are mentioned are only about ten per cent of the assets deposited in Swiss banks.”

The Swiss foreign ministry responded to Marzouki’s call by saying that Switzerland was “determined to return these assets as soon as possible” and that “no other country has made as much effort in this direction”.

“Switzerland hopes the question of the legal owners of these funds can be quickly cleared up by the legal authorities so that illegitimately acquired assets can be returned.”

The ministry added that cooperation between the two countries had already borne fruit, and that Tunisia had submitted a number of requests for mutual legal assistance.

The Swiss public prosecutor is also investigating some of those close to Ben Ali on suspicion of money laundering and membership of a criminal organisation.

However, the Swiss courts need to receive correctly formulated requests for legal assistance. Initial requests submitted by Tunisia were not detailed enough.

Anouar Gharbi, one of Marzouki’s advisors, told Swiss television that the Tunisian central bank and the justice ministry had now supplied all the information required by the Swiss.

Marzouki is due to visit Switzerland in June.   

No plundering dictator opens an account in his own name to deposit illegally acquired assets: they use their relatives, lawyers or other middlemen and even their bodyguards and mistresses.

Once a corrupt regime has been overthrown, the home country may start criminal proceedings against the dictator and his entourage.

It can ask Switzerland for international judicial assistance and the Swiss will freeze the assets if requesting country shows why this is necessary.

The country must submit the correct documents to prove this, but the Swiss are willing to help the authorities to submit their request.

In 2011 a law a law on the restitution of dictators’ assets was passed to ensure that countries whose judicial system is too disorganised to formulate a request may nevertheless get the assets returned.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR