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Net of frozen Egyptian assets to be cast wider

Egyptians wearing masks of UBS CEO Oswald Grübel and former President Hosni Mubarak demonstrate in Zurich for the return of assets Keystone

More assets held in Switzerland by members of the former Egyptian government could be frozen as criminal investigations into their activities unfold.

Swiss experts met Egyptian officials this week to discuss the process of returning an estimated SFr410 million ($466 million) in assets belonging to 14 people, including former President Hosni Mubarak and members of his close family.

Swiss Ambassador to Egypt Dominik Furgler tells Egyptian authorities have formally asked Switzerland to investigate whether additional people held assets in the country, with a view to freezing them in the future. 

Egyptians have lodged some 6,000 criminal complaints relating to activities and events which occurred under the former regime, Furgler said, and public pressure for justice, including returning stolen government assets, remains high. How much money is at stake and how many people are involved? Is it possible that more people and assets will be identified in future?

Dominik Furgler: Until now we have found SFr410 million. These amounts are related to a group of people whose assets were blocked on February 11. This was a unique measure worldwide, a unilateral blockage before the Egyptians asked us to do so. These people were ex-President Hosni Mubarak and his close entourage, his family. On request of the Egyptians a few more people were added to the list of the blocking ordinance a few days later, so we are talking of 14 people overall.

We are not in a position to disclose what amount is linked to which person. It doesn’t mean that all of the listed persons have assets in Switzerland. I would like to stress that these are assets not just accounts.

Now the Egyptians are sending us new requests for mutual legal assistance in criminal matters with lists of persons. The question first is can we freeze or not? Of course, if the necessary information is given we will be in a position to freeze more assets. What are the main difficulties of returning frozen assets?

D.F.: I would rather say “challenges”. One mandatory thing is that the Egyptians will have to prove the illegal origin of the assets of these people and that’s what is ongoing now. They are having investigations, court proceedings. Two ministers have already been judged and there is a court decision. The proof of the illegal origin of the blocked assets is crucial in order to be able to return them to Egypt and we do not know today whether it will be the case for 100 per cent of all the blocked assets.

For us it is also important that the Egyptians can show a link to Switzerland. They have to give some evidence why they think this illegally acquired money has flown to Switzerland. A country cannot just come and say ‘well, he’s a crook’. For Switzerland what would be the bottom line for accepting proof of illegal activity? Does it need a court judgment?

D.F.: To return the blocked assets in the end, we need court judgments and requests for mutual legal assistance. So first, an Egyptian judge must refer the issue to a Swiss judge and second, the competent Swiss judicial authorities will look into the matter and order the bank to disclose the account. Given that the justice system under Mubarak was questionable and the country is still in a period of transitional government, can Switzerland trust the judicial process in Egypt?

D.F.: For us it is important that the rule of law is respected. For example, minimum standards have to be respected in a court proceeding. Talking to the authorities here, I certainly can say they are highly professional, they are very interested. They assured us that in the court proceedings, the accused always has a lawyer with them and they have the right to appeal. These are all positive things but a final judgement can only be made when we have all the details. How long do you think it is going to take for these issues to be resolved? Can the initial three-year period to block assets be extended?

D.F.: Nobody can foresee how long it will take. This depends largely on the length of the Egyptian investigations and court procedures. The three year blocking period can be extended but only under certain circumstances and not eternally. How keen are the Egyptian authorities on getting these assets back, given that many in the army had ties to the former regime?

D.F.: In our meetings two days ago, we could really see a keen interest to move forward, to do things properly, to respect our requirements. We really had the impression these people are professional. But of course there is a certain pressure. The expectations of the public are huge. How has public pressure for justice developed since the fall of Mubarak and what is the public mood about some of these issues?

D.F.: It’s changing all the time. The public has noted with great satisfaction that more and more people have been included in the investigations. More or less all the people whom the public wanted to see be tried are now under investigation, even the ex-president and his family. There are more than 6,000 complaints – people can file complaints and ask for investigations [to be carried out]. So it’s a huge undertaking.

On February 11, Switzerland froze assets belonging to Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and members of his close entourage. Mubarak’s worth remains a mystery, but claims that he and his sons amassed up to $70 billion helped drive protests that brought him down.

Since then, the Swiss have identified SFr410 million in assets belonging to this group alone. It is possible that other members of the Mubarak regime also hold assets in Switzerland, which could be blocked.

Initially, the money has been frozen for three years. If the illicit origin of the assets is proven within that time, Swiss and Egyptian authorities will have to then define a pattern for restitution.

If it cannot be demonstrated within the framework of a criminal law procedure or a mutual legal assistance proceeding, the assets will have to be unfrozen.

If Egypt were to be incapable of successfully undertaking criminal proceedings and if the mutual legal assistance procedure with Switzerland were unable to move forward, the government could decide to apply the new Act on Restitution of Illicit Assets, which came into force in February.

The Swiss government this week sent experts to Cairo to hold talks on restitution of the assets. Talks focused on “the technical aspects of the judicial cooperation between the two countries”, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR