x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Swiss freeze $960m of assets belonging to North African dictators

Asset Freeze Focus: Close to $1 billion of assets belonging to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and deposed presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

The former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
The former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Swiss authorities have frozen hundreds of millions of dollars of assets belonging to Muammar Qaddafi, Libya's leader, and the deposed presidents of Egypt and Tunisia.

The freeze on assets totalling US$960 million (Dh3.52 billion), announced yesterday by the Swiss foreign ministry, was one of the most dramatic in the wake of uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and violence in Libya. In February the US froze about $30bn in assets held by Col Qaddafi's regime.

Authorities in Switzerland said yesterday they blocked 360m Swiss francs (Dh1.53bn) held by Col Qaddafi following a raft of sanctions imposed by the UN, EU and dozens of individual countries over the regime's violent suppression of a rebellion against its 32-year rule.

Switzerland also froze 410m francs' worth of assets owned by the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Another 60m francs' worth of assets belonging to the toppled Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Aliwere frozen, the Swiss foreign ministry said.

Switzerland has been the quickest country to act against Col Qaddafi and the former Egyptian and Tunisian presidents. It announced a freeze on assets held by Mr ben Ali and members of his former regime shortly after he was toppled in January. The freeze against Mr Mubarak and his associates also came swiftly after he was ousted in February.

Analysts say Switzerland is leading the charge partly because it wants to show itself as an increasingly open and well-regulated jurisdiction after decades of clinging to strict banking secrecy laws.

"Switzerland's move to freeze [almost] $1bn is a token gesture, not only to address concerns of the new governments in the countries concerned, but also to give confidence to the international community," said Ghanem Nuseibeh, a partner at Cornerstone Global Associates and senior analyst with Political Capital.

The move also gave the first indication of how much money Mr Mubarak, Mr Ben Ali and Col Qaddafi hold in Swiss accounts. Total estimates of their wealth, however, are much higher. Each of the regimes is thought to have tens of billions of dollars in assets worldwide.

Getting all the money back would be "almost impossible", Mr Nuseibeh said, given the regimes put money in many complex investments. Rooting out the proceeds of decades of North African corruption would take time because of "the breadth and the deviousness of the advice these guys were getting coupled with the complexity of the assets", according to Richard Blaksley, a partner at GPW, a corporate investigationcompany based in London.

"It's not like there's an account somewhere marked 'Qaddafi current account'," Mr Blaksley said.

Analysts also say the recovery effort cannot begin in earnest until new governments emerge in Egypt, Tunisia and, potentially, Libya. Only then, they say, will lawyers and investigators have the clear mandate they need from elected governments to carry out their work.

In the meantime, however, officials are already calling on the international community to speed up asset recovery efforts and help rebuild their governments and societies after revolutions. Transitional governments in both Tunisia and Egypt have asked for freezes on assets of some members of their former regimes. A group of lawyers in Tunisia made a direct appeal to the UAE last month to identify and put a hold on all of Mr Ben Ali's holdings in the country.