By Lin Noueihed, Reuters, Tunis, July 16, 2012
(Reuters) – The Tunisian president ousted last year in a popular uprising is willing to hand over to his country any assets found in Switzerland, widely believed to be worth tens of millions of dollars, his lawyer said on Monday.
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011 after weeks of protests against his rule, and the new Tunisian government has been trying to recover cash and assets it believes the former leader and his family had stashed abroad.
Ben Ali’s Beirut-based lawyer said he had sent a letter to the Swiss Foreign Ministry to inform it of his client’s willingness to give up any assets held in Switzerland.
“I hereby permit … you to transfer all the alleged assets to the Tunisian state without any further legal or other measures and without the need to make checks with my client,” the letter said, according to a statement by the lawyer, Akram Azoury.
He did not put a number on the assets in question.
During his 23 years in office, Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and their extended family are believed by many Tunisians to have accumulated fortunes, stashing money in foreign accounts while unemployment soared at home.
The lavish lifestyle of Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, and her circle was especially seen by many Tunisians as a symbol of corruption in the Ben Ali era.
The new Tunisian leaders have come under immense public pressure to retrieve any Ben Ali assets held abroad and to speed up the slow pace of justice for former officials associated with him.
It is not clear how much money Ben Ali and his entourage held abroad, but the government believes it runs into the billions of dollars.
The justice minister told Reuters in May that Tunisia expected to recover assets held in Lebanon and Switzerland first.
Lebanon has said it would return $45 million in assets belonging Ben Ali’s wife, and Switzerland said a year ago that it had found about 60 million francs ($63 million) linked to Ben Ali and had frozen the accounts.
In October, Switzerland formally accepted a request from Tunisia for judicial assistance in recovering the money.
Switzerland has sent financial and legal experts to fledgling Arab democracies to help authorities unlock a web of transactions. But new governments looking to reclaim cash often have difficulty tracing money that is usually hidden in a network of interlinked trusts, companies and associates.