Following the recent popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the international community took swift and decisive action in freezing the assets of former potentates which are suspected to have been obtained illegitimately in an effort to prevent these former (or in the case of Muammar Gaddafi, current) dictators from siphoning wealth from those countries attempting to depose them. Reports have suggested that billions of dollars worldwide have fallen within the scope of such sanctions, although it is difficult to place a precise figure on the amounts which have been seized under such sanctions until formal investigations are concluded..
However, recent announcements from the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, have revealed the scale of wealth that is the subject of these proceedings in Switzerland. During a conference which was held in Tunisia, it was announced that the Swiss authorities in Bern have frozen approximately $880 million of funds belonging to former heads of state in North Africa. The single biggest source of funds was linked to the ousted Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. A spokesman for the foreign ministry stated that some $430 million could be traced back to him and his associates.
A further £1380 million is believed to have been misappropriated by the Gaddafi regime, and $63 million by Tunisian Zine El Abadine Ben Ali and his associates.
The funds have been frozen under the provisions of a pioneering piece of legislation, the Restitution of Illegal Assets Act, which came into force in February 2011. Originally designed to provide a legal basis for returning to the Haitian state the disputed assets of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, which had been the subject of a freezing order since he had been removed from power there, the law has proved to be an effective measure in these unforeseen circumstances arising from the Arab spring. The law allows the Swiss authorities to confiscate assets and return them to the country of origin without requiring legal assistance from that country, whereas the previous regime required extensive assistance from the victim state which was often difficult to obtain due to the power vacuum that had been left by fleeing dictators.
It is reported that the new administrations in both Egypt and Tunisia have been in contact with the Swiss authorities regarding the return of these assets, which will provide a further test as to the effectiveness of this new legislation.