Tunisia seeks extradition of Ben Ali, traces hidden assets
Tunisia's justice minister said on Tuesday he suspected Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was still benefiting from funds stashed abroad 16 months after his overthrow and urged Saudi Arabia to extradite the former president for trial.
May 23, 2012 12:02 by Reuters
Tunisia’s justice minister said on Tuesday he suspected Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was still benefiting from funds stashed abroad 16 months after his overthrow and urged Saudi Arabia to extradite the former president for trial.
Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia as protests engulfed Tunisia on Jan. 14 2011, has been sentenced in absentia to decades in jail on charges ranging from corruption to torture.
Tunisia’s government has faced persistent criticism over its failure to persuade Saudi Arabia to hand over Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser whose lavish lifestyle and clique of wealthy relatives had come to be seen by many Tunisians as a symbol of the corrupt Ben Ali era.
During his 23 years in office, members of Ben Ali’s extended family are believed to have accumulated fortunes, stashing money in foreign accounts, while his security forces routinely arrested anyone who dared to dissent.
Speaking to Reuters on Tuesday, Nourredine Bouheiri said Saudi Arabia should not trust a man who had betrayed his people.
“Ben Ali still relies on a money-smuggling network from there through assumed networks and false identities and the proof is that there is movement and usage in bank accounts abroad,” Bouheiri said in an interview.
“We don’t for a moment doubt the Saudi leadership and king’s respect for the Tunisian revolution and people… but his presence in Saudi Arabia is a danger to it,” Bouheiri said.
“Those who betray their people cannot be loyal to anyone.”
Saudi Arabia has made no public comment recently on Ben Ali.
Bouheiri did not give any more details about where these accounts were based or how Ben Ali might be accessing them.
Tunisia’s revolt electrified millions across the Arab world who also suffered from high unemployment, rising costs of living and repressive governments, but many Tunisians lament what they see as a lack of justice in the aftermath of their uprising.
Many of Ben Ali’s confidantes and relatives were able to flee in the chaos and the billions in cash and property Tunisians believe is stashed abroad has yet to be returned to the new government elected in October.
CHASING THE MONEY
Bouheiri said Tunisia expected to recover assets held by Ben Ali and his wife in Lebanon andSwitzerland first. It also expected to recover Leila Trabelsi’s yachts from Italy and Spain
“We succeeded in exposing secret accounts belonging to Leila Ben Ali in Lebanon worth $45 million and we will receive this very soon,” he said.
“The Swiss judiciary has permitted Tunisian lawyers to look into the secret files of the balances of Ben Ali and his family and in-laws and this decision was taken for the first time due to the strength of the complaints and cases presented by the Tunisian government.”
Switzerland said a year ago it had found about 60 million Swiss francs ($63 million) linked to Ben Aliand had frozen the assets.
In October, Switzerland formally accepted a request from Tunisia for judicial assistance in recovering the money after rejecting an initial request as insufficient.
Switzerland has sent financial and legal experts to fledgling Arab democracies to establish a “relationship of confidence” and help authorities unlock a web of transactions.
But new governments looking to reclaim cash often have difficulty tracing the money as they are hidden in a network of interlinked trusts, companies and associates.
Bouheiri said it was still not clear how much money Ben Ali and his entourage held abroad, but the total was believed to run into the billions of dollars held in accounts around the world.
Bouheiri also said Tunisia was hopeful that Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of Ben Ali who is wanted in Tunisia on corruption charges, could eventually be extradited from Canada, where he is seeking asylum.
“Our efforts have begun to bear fruit and the first decision is Canada’s refusal to grant him residency,” Bouheiri said.
“We want to try him not for the sake of revenge… but to apply the law to all.”
(Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Myra MacDonald)