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Swiss freeze $1 billion in dictators’ assets

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Tess Vigeland: Being a North African dictator is a little less profitable these days. Swiss banks say they’ve frozen about $1 billion worth of assets, reportedly belonging to Messrs. Gaddafi of Libya, Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia. Now that the money is frozen, anyone wanting to thaw it out — say, Mubarak’s successors in Egypt — faces an uphill battle.

From the European Desk in London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

Stephen Beard: When Colonel Gaddafi fell out with Switzerland a few years ago, he vowed to pull all his cash out of the country. But he seems to have left some spare change behind. Today, the Swiss government said it has frozen $415 million belonging to the Libyan despot. And a similar sum linked to the toppled Egyptian dictator.

The announcement is designed to burnish Switzerland’s new image as a squeaky clean financial center. But says Haig Simonian of the Financial Times in Zurich, there’s still one awkward little question: why were these dictators allowed to stash their cash in Switzerland?

Haig Simonian: The Swiss authorities, despite all their efforts to try and make sure they only receive clean money, nothing controversial, have still not managed to screen the funds coming their way adequately.

And there’s another issue. The frozen assets will not be returned immediately to the countries from which they were looted. It could take anywhere from three to 10 years before that happens. Officially, the delay is due to Swiss legal process, but money-laundering expert Jeffrey Robinson is skeptical.

Jeffrey Robinson: The governments are not in any hurry to return this money. Why should they? As long as they can hold on to it, they can earn money off the back of it.

And he says it will be especially interesting to see how long it takes to repatriate the $34 billion of Libyan assets frozen by the United States.

In London, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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