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The 5 Fishes, a 32-metre yacht that belonged to Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of the former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is anchored at Goulette harbor, outside Tunis. The boat was returned to Tunisia from Spain, where it was seized in February. It is valued at 8 million. Hassene Dridi / AP Photo
The 5 Fishes, a 32-metre yacht that belonged to Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of the former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is anchored at Goulette harbor, outside Tunis. The boat was returned to Tunisia from Spain, where it was seized in February. It is valued at 8 million. Hassene Dridi / AP Photo

EU steps up hunt for stolen wealth of Arab Spring nations

Frustration at the lack of progress in the international effort to repatriate billions of dollars in cash and valuables to countries where dictators were toppled in the Arab Spring has prompted Europe to take the initiative.

It comes in many shapes and sizes - as gold and diamonds, cash deposits and bonds, yachts, bricks and mortar - and the post-Arab Spring governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya want it back.

The recovery of assets owned overseas by members of regimes driven from power as demonstrations against the old order swept through North Africa to parts of the Middle East has become a major international issue.

Driven by deep dismay in Arab Spring countries at the stuttering progress of recovery efforts, the European Union has launched a new initiative to inject more urgency into the task of returning what has become known as the "stolen billions".

Although some of the reasons for discontent differed from one country to another, a constant feature was the suspicion of widescale corruption enabling those at the top to amass extraordinary fortunes.

When Mohammed Bouazizi, a street fruit-seller, set himself on fire in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17 2010, his despairing gesture became a catalyst for the uprising in his own country and the spread of protest to Egypt and Libya.

While trying to ply his trade, he had allegedly faced continual harassment from police and municipal officials, some of it because he was unable to pay small bribes.

But at state level, the misappropriation of funds occurred on a scale Mr Bouazizi, who died 18 days after his protest, could barely have imagined.

Following regime change, each of the affected countries has sought international help in locating and repatriating the large sums sent abroad.

The stakes are high. The deposed and assassinated Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, and his family, is said on some estimates to have amassed foreign assets worth US$80 billion.

To appreciate this sum, it is worth considering that it is several billion dollars higher than the fortune of Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and the world's richest man according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The EU says the recovery of assets "stolen by the former dictators and regimes of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt" is a moral and legal imperative.

Members of the European parliament voted last month to press the EU and member states to accelerate the return of riches already frozen. A team of EU legal and financial experts will work with officials from the Arab Spring countries to find ways of speeding up the process.

The resolution stressed the need to fuel those countries' economic recovery, reinforce the EU's partnership with its southern neighbours, support transition to democracy and send a clear message that there should be no impunity for those involved in corruption and money laundering.

Members of the parliament expressed concern that new rules allowing EU countries to release frozen assets to Egypt and Tunisia, and strong political will on all sides, had led to only a "very limited success" in recovering misappropriated assets.

The EU's role is restricted to freezing the assets. Officials point out that recovery and repatriation is a matter for member states.

The parliament called for more effective co-ordination between EU partners and a common set of EU principles that would help the affected countries regain possession of the illicit gains. Tunisia recently paraded a 32-metre luxury yacht, Five Fishes, valued at 8 million that was handed back by the Spanish authorities in April.

It was previously owned by Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of the former Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Members of the family are now in Canada, seeking political asylum.

Another yacht, owned by one of Mr Ben Ali's nephews, Kais Ben Ali, who was arrested last year on corruption charges, had been returned by Italy a few weeks earlier.

The issue is by no means confined to the EU, as reports of the former dictator Hosni Mubarak's family owning valuable properties in the United States show.

Lebanon, too, was a favoured location for placing funds; $28.8m (Dh105.7m) stashed there by the Ben Ali family has been seized and handed back but Tunisia says there is still more to come.

The non-EU state of Switzerland holds Tunisian assets worth about 60m Swiss francs (Dh234m). Chedly Ayari, the governor of the Tunisian central bank, has said procedures to recover much of this are making good progress.

The news website allafrica.com reported recently that Mr Ayari, who chairs the national commission of recovery of stolen assets placed abroad, had said recovered funds would help finance social projects in underprivileged inland regions of Tunisia.

For those who believe the West has dragged its feet in restoring the stolen assets, there has been - at face value - welcome reassurance from the British government.

The Saudi-owned news broadcaster Al Arabiya said Alistair Burt, the UK Middle East minister, had announced the creation of a specialist team using investigators working exclusively on the case supported by lawyers from Britain's prosecution service and officials from the British treasury to deal with asset freezing.

"The UK itself remains fully committed to helping return stolen assets to the people of the Arab Spring countries," media quoted him as saying.

And each breakthrough in the laborious process is treated as an important success story.

"The symbolism of the process is important," said Ana Gomes, a Portuguese socialist member of the European parliament who has taken a special interest in assets recovery, commenting on Tunisia's obvious relish in displaying the returned Five Fishes yacht to photographers.

Ms Gomes, who turned to politics after a career in diplomacy, believes legal, national and financial complexities explain the drawn-out process to restore embezzled funds.

In some cases, she said, members of regime inner circles seeking to conceal assets in EU countries tried to protect them using links with local partners while the effects of financial deregulation, and banking secrecy, had also delayed the process.

"In truth, we do not know for sure what the total amounts are," Ms Gomes said. "The countries themselves do not have a clear idea, though we would expect there to be more originating from Libya than Tunisia and Egypt."

The actual amounts, she said, may be quite different to the figures mentioned in media reports.

"But it is not a question of quantity, of how much is tucked away after being stolen from the public," she added.

"What is important is to start recovering it, for the new authorities of those countries.

"It is a matter of justice and of tremendous importance to the new governments, their people and economic necessity.

But it will not only assist these new authorities. It is also in our own interests that the EU should act on its obligation to assist with the return of stolen assets."

Ms Gomes rejected concerns on the European right that the returned funds could end up supporting regimes that are anti-western or as oppressive as those they have replaced.

"Whoever conveys these negative perceptions is wrong," she said.

"It is a narrow appraisal and not ours. We know from our own experiences that the transition to democracy takes times."

Meanwhile, much of the vast amount of cash and valuables dictators squirrelled away remains an elusive target.

business@thenational.ae

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