Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

Haitian dictator money remains a tough nut to crack

un tribunal
Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, "Baby Doc", (end of the desk at centre) attends a court hearing on whether he should be charged with human rights abuses during his brutal 1971-1986 regime, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on February 28, 2013. Keystone / Dieu Nalio Chery

More than 30 years after the overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti is still waiting to get back the fortune that the dictator and his family deposited in Switzerland. The delay is down to legal intrigues being played out in the Swiss courts.

For 15 years, Jean-Claude Duvalier terrorised Haiti, skimming millions of dollars to finance his extravagant lifestyle. The crimes committed by “Baby Doc” between 1971 and 1986 have made it into the history books. But the story is far from over: the Haitian population is still waiting for the millions of dollars that the Duvalier clan hid in Swiss banks.

Government officials and the courts have been dealing with this issue for more than 30 years. The Federal Administrative Court recently rejected a complaint from the heirs of a former Haitian minister, who wanted millions to be unfrozen. The verdict marks the latest chapter in the never-ending story of the Duvalier regime’s fortunes.

As early as 1986, Port-au-Prince sent a request for legal assistance to Switzerland. It was not until 2002 that the Federal Council (Swiss government) decided to freeze Duvalier funds in banks in Geneva, Vaud and Zurich – a total of CHF7.6 million ($8.3 million). In 2009 the Federal Office of Justice announced that the money would be returned to Haiti. A year later, however, the Federal Supreme Court overturned the decision following a complaint from the Duvaliers. In 2011 the Federal Department of Finance applied for the assets to be confiscated.

“Barons of the dictatorship”

In addition to the Duvaliers, people connected to the clan also deposited millions in Swiss banks – the so-called “barons of the dictatorship”. For example, Frantz Merceron, Minister for Economy, Finance and Industry of the Republic of Haiti from 1982 to 1985. In the St Fleur ReportExternal link, published in 1987 by the Haitian Minister of Justice, he was described as a banker for the Duvaliers who helped misappropriate public funds and accompanied them on their overseas shopping trips .

In 2015, the whistleblowing platform SwissLeaksExternal link revealed for the first time that Merceron had an account with HSBC bank. Five years later, the Federal Administrative Court ruled that the former minister was also a customer of Credit Suisse in Geneva

The account was controlled by Opaline Group Services SA, a Panamanian company founded in November 2000, four months before opening a business relationship with Credit Suisse. In October 2001, more than CHF6 million had been transferred to the bank from another account operated by the Opaline Foundation based in Liechtenstein.

In response to a 1986 article in Le Monde diplomatique, detailing the “privatization of the Haitian state” and the systematic misappropriation of funds by the Duvalier dynasty, Merceron wrote that the assets were of “a purely private nature, they are funds that have been saved up over a long period of time and are documented.” 

In 2005, Frantz Merceron died suddenly. His widow Muriel became the beneficiary of the Credit Suisse account, which in 2011 still held more than €4 million. The Federal Council decided to block this account in 2012, which the Federal Supreme Court confirmed despite a complaint from Muriel Merceron and Opaline Group Services AG.

In early 2020, the Department of Finance finally took the first step towards restoring Merceron’s assets to Haiti by ordering the millions to be confiscated. Muriel Merceron died the day after that decision.

The Merceron descendants, together with Panamanian Opaline Group Services, contested this decision. But the Federal Administrative Court has recently dismissed the complaint, ruling that the assets are in the name of Opaline, and struck the Merceron descendants from the proceedings.

According to the Panamanian Commercial Register, the asset manager Arturo Fasana and the Geneva lawyer Dante Canonica are the directors of Opaline Group Services SA. Like the descendants of Muriel Merceron, the company is represented by Laurent Moreillon.

*Founded by investigative journalists Marie Maurisse and François Pilet, Gotham CityExternal link is a newsletter focussing on legal oversight and economic crime.

Each week Gotham offers subscribers reports about fraud, corruption and laundering cases linked to the Swiss financial sector, based on publicly accessible legal documents.

Each month, it selects one of its articles, which it then expands and offers free of charge to SWI readers.

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

Join the conversation!

Contributions must adhere to our guidelines. If you have questions or wish to suggest other ideas for debates, please, get in touch!

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR