GENEVA - For decades, European bank accounts and trusts and the real estate market were havens for dictators seeking safe places to deposit billions of dollars they were stealing from their countries of origin.
The pressure exerted upon European private banks and justice departments by anti-corruption watchdog groups and associations of lawyers has at last made changes to one of these notorious havens for embezzled fortunes.
In Switzerland, the government just approved a law that eases the historical secrecy of Swiss private banks. The law allows for money deposited here by Third World dictators to be reimbursed to the legitimate governments of the dictators’ countries of origin.
The law, which came into effect on Feb 1, and dubbed "lex Duvalier", in reference to the infamous former Haitian dictator Jean Claude Duvalier, is being used to revise the bank accounts and trusts maintained in Switzerland by Arab dictators such as Tunisian Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian Hosni Mubarak.
"The new law allows the Swiss government to return money to their legitimate owners in cases of proven embezzlement," Valentin Zellweger, head of the department for international law at the Swiss government, told IPS.
According to official Swiss figures, the Egyptian government keeps accounts and trusts in local banks for some 3,800 billion dollars. At least one third of this amount is held in so-called custodial accounts, the typical bank instrument used to conceal wealth obtained through embezzlement of public funds.
Zellweger refused to comment on the Egyptian accounts and whether the stockpiled money would be returned to a democratically elected Egyptian government.
"But, if a given government holding banks accounts in Switzerland is ousted and there is evidence of corruption, we will react swiftly to see whether there are chances of returning the property to its rightful owners," Zellweger said.
Zellweger told IPS that banks accounts held in Switzerland under the name of Laurent Gbagbo, of Côte d’Ivoire, or his relatives and collaborators, have been frozen. According to international observers, Gbagbo lost the presidential elections last December.
Similarly, at least two bank accounts held in Switzerland under the name of Ben Ali have been frozen. Yet another African dictator, the Nigerian despot Sani Abacha, who died in 1998, held some 700 million dollars in Swiss bank accounts.
In addition to bank accounts and trusts, African and other developing world dictators accumulate real estate property in Europe.
In France, the group Sherpa, formed by lawyers in cooperation with the anti- corruption watchdog Transparency International, recently filed a complaint to obtain the confiscation and restitution of real estate and luxury motor vehicles registered in the names of several African dictators and their relatives.
The Tunisian kleptocrat Ben Ali and his relatives have registered more than five billion dollars in real estate and other property in France. "It is unlikely that Ben Ali could stockpile such a fortune from his salary as president of Tunisia," Paris-based lawyer William Bourdon, director for Sherpa, told IPS.
The list of real estate registered under Ben Ali’s name, or his relatives, includes numerous opulent apartments and palaces in Paris and in fashionable seaside vacation spots, like Saint Tropez; the Mediterranean Côte d’Azur; and the ski station Courchevel in the French Alps.
The lawsuit filed by Sherpa and Transparency International also addresses property registered in France under the names of Teodoro Obiang, president of Equatorial Guinea, Denis Sassou Nguesso, dictator of Congo Brazzaville, and the late Omar Bongo, who ruled Gabon for more than 40 years.
Bongo’s son, Ali, "inherited" the country’s presidency after his father’s death in June 2009.
The lawsuit against Obiang, Sassou Nguesso and Bongo is a second stab at French justice, after a first attempt in 2007 was officially rejected "for lack of evidence."
This time around, however, French justice seems to be acting with more diligence. Even French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced in late January that "France feels naturally compelled to investigate the misappropriated wealth (by dictators in the Maghreb countries) and restore it to the people."
Similar steps have been taken in other European countries, which until recently considered Ben Ali, Mubarak, and other African dictator their allies.
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle’s praise for Mubarak during a visit to Cairo, Egypt, as "a man of great wisdom and experience, who always keeps his eyes firmly on the future" exemplified the Egyptian dictator’s cushy relationship with the North.
European collaboration with dictators such as Mubarak has extended beyond praise and indifference about corruption. According to official figures, in 2009 alone, Germany delivered some 100 million dollars worth of weapons to Mubarak’s regime.
"All German governments over the past 20, 30 years are guilty of complicity with the brutality of Mubarak’s regime," Paul Russmann, spokesperson of the German Campaign against the Export of Weapons, told IPS.
The group opposes the German export of weapons to developing countries. "Mubarak has for decades received German weapons and military material, despite the well-known brutal violations of human rights committed by his regime," Russmann said.
The same is true for France and other leading European countries, which delivered weapons to the dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and other African countries, despite human rights violations.