The future of Muammar Gaddafi's assets

Libyans wave their new national flag as they celebrate in the streets of Tripoli following news of Muammar Gaddafi's capture on October 20, 2011.

Kai Ryssdal: Ever since the Libyan revolution started, people have been looking for Colonel Gaddafi's money, and how to get it all back to Libya and the Libyan people.

Mark Vlasic teaches law at Georgetown University; he used to be the head of operations at the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative at the World Bank. Mark, good to have you with us.

Mark Vlasic: Thank you.

Ryssdal: The simple question's probably the best one here: Is the fact that Muammar Gaddafi is now dead going to make it tougher to track down his assets?

Vlasic: I think likely it will be a bit easier because people who are trying to protect his assets because of personal relationships with him perhaps will not feel that personal connection now that he's no longer with us.

Ryssdal: The assets that are still inside the country -- is it cash and jewels and bearer bonds and all that easily liquid stuff?

Vlasic: I would imagine it's anything and everything. He's been in power for what, 42 years now? He's been placed under sanctions before. He knows quite well how to hide and stash his money. So my guess is he's probably become pretty good at this. It's incredibly complex work and it'll takes quite an amount of time to actually try to uncover what he's actually hidden.

Ryssdal: Is everything necessarily ill-gotten gains?

Vlasic: It depends on how you want to look at it. The money that's been frozen and is in part of the Libyan investment fund is money that should obviously be returned to Libya. The question is, of the money that Gaddafi was able to siphon off for himself, that money's clearly ill-gotten gains. And my guess is he used parts of the government as an extension of his own piggy bank. If you look at other past dictators, they've done that. So I think quite possibly he's done the same. So I think that the people working on this case will be spending a lot of time trying to figure out what is the illicit origin of the funds that are located around the world.

Ryssdal: Well speaking of around the world, what are the odds that in the number of months or years or however long this takes, we're going to find Swiss bank accounts and things in New York City and London?

Vlasic: I think a lot of money has actually been frozen already, particularly the money that was located in the United States and Switzerland. In fact, the Swiss, to their credit, were the first country to freeze his assets. And I think in terms of looking forward, it's important to recognize that it's not just the Libyans who are working on this by themselves; there's international organizations that have been set up. Bob Zoellick, president of the World Bank, to his credit, set up the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative to really help countries track and recover stolen assets from past dictators. So now countries that have signed onto this are at a greater obligation to assist the Libyans with this operation.

Ryssdal: Is there a common thread that runs through dictators and their loot, for want of a better term? I'm thinking Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak and now Gaddafi. Is there a similarity?

Vlasic: Yeah, I was lucky enough to work as one of the prosecution attorneys on the Slobodan Miloševic case and have since been involved in the Saddam case and a few other matters. And what I noticed from my experience is the same people who are willing to slaughter thousands or millions of people are the same people who are willing to steal millions and billions of dollars. And I think for far too long, the interest has really been focused only the war crimes aspect, which of course is incredibly important, but oftentimes, forgot about the corruption side of things. In the past, when terrible dictators died or fled and lived in exile, nobody talked about the money that was stolen from those countries. Now, one of the first things that happens is people are talking about what about the money? How do we get the money back and how do we use that money that's been stolen from the people in those countries, to return to those countries to help those countries in their own personal development.

Ryssdal: Mark Vlasic, thanks a lot.

Vlasic: Thanks for your time.

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