Swiss lift 12-year freeze on Mobutu's millions

Swiss authorities on Thursday lifted a 12-year freeze on nearly $7-million in assets the late Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko held in Switzerland, allowing their return to his family.

The Swiss foreign ministry said it was reluctantly releasing the 7,7-million francs ($6,7-million) after a final supreme court ruling this week spelt the end of the long legal battle.

“The foreign ministry deplores this outcome, which ends 12 years of blockage during which all possible solutions were attempted,” it said in a statement.

“There is no other option but to lift the measures blocking these assets,” the foreign ministry added.

Swiss authorities had repeatedly reimposed a temporary freeze on Mobutu’s fortune since 1997 amid suspicions that the money was siphoned off from public assets in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Banks and other parties in the case were informed about the decision to release the money on Wednesday through their lawyers.

The case had turned into an embarrassment for the Swiss government, which has repeatedly claimed since anti-money laundering laws were introduced in the 1990s that the country’s banking secrecy no longer provided a haven for the ill-gotten gains of dictators.

Swiss authorities are preparing legislation for next year aimed at allowing the outright confiscation of illicitly gained assets held by “politically exposed people”.

Officials had sought since 1997 to encourage successor authorities in the DRC to fight through Swiss courts to recover the money while it was frozen.

But by the time full legal action from Kinshasa came through in January, the courts ruled that it fell under a statute of limitations.

Legal experts had also pointed out that there had been insufficient proof to back up seizure, unlike the case of former Nigerian military dictator Sani Abacha.

The Nigerian government fought a successful legal battle against Abacha’s relatives for the return of more than $600-million frozen in Swiss banks by 2006.

The decision to lift the final temporary freeze on Mobutu’s assets came after the Swiss Federal Criminal Tribunal rejected a rearguard appeal by Mark Pieth, a Swiss professor of criminology and chairperson of the OECD’s working group on bribery.

Pieth had alleged, based on publicly known facts, that Mobutu’s family were involved in criminal activity.

“The authorities, the foreign ministry, really tried to do something but Congo wasn’t cooperating at all because the cronies of Mobutu are still present in the country,” said Marnie Dannacher, Pieth’s assistant and a researcher.

But she also criticised the role played by the Swiss attorney-general’s office.

“The attorney-general could have started his own proceedings 12 years ago on money laundering,” said Dannacher.

Mobutu came to power in a 1965 coup, five years after the Central African nation gained independence from Belgium.

He ruled the then Zaire for 32 years, plunging the country into a long economic crisis marked by state corruption.

Mobutu was overthrown in May 1997 by Laurent Kabila, the father of the current president Joseph, and died of cancer a few months later, after passing through his Swiss villa on his way to exile in Morocco.

Swiss authorities have said they also tried, unsuccessfully, to encourage Mobutu’s heirs to relinquish their share of the money. - AFP

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