Haiti likely to recover Duvalier's Swiss millions: lawyer

18th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

A 25-year legal battle over Haitian ex-dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's Swiss millions should come to an end once new legislation kicks in on February 1, a lawyer for Haiti's government said Tuesday.

The Duvaliers have been fighting to hold on to some 5.7 million dollars of allegedly embezzled funds held by an opaque Liechtenstein-based foundation in Switzerland ever since Swiss authorities froze them after Duvalier was ousted.

But new legislation was rushed through parliament last year to ease the restitution of assets stolen by corrupt or greedy politicians to the concerned countries, partly as a result of the Duvalier saga.

"The Lex Duvalier will be applicable next month and I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be applied whether Mr Duvalier is or isn't in Haiti," the lawyer, Enrico Monfrini, told AFP.

Duvalier and his followers were accused of plundering hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds during their 15-year reign until "Baby Doc" was ousted in 1986.

But traces of them abroad have evaporated over the decades, leaving the money frozen for more than two decades in a Swiss bank, legal sources believe.

The Swiss foreign ministry confirmed in a statement that the federal law on the restitution of illicit assets of "politically exposed persons" will come into force on February 1.

It allows the government to order the confiscation and restitution of such assets from Swiss bank accounts even if the country they belong to cannot pursue a court case.

Until now the Swiss government has only had the power to freeze money for a limited period to allow space for attempts to seek restitution through the courts, a measure it stretched to its very limit with the assets from Haiti.

Last March, lawyers acting for the Duvalier family filed what was believed to be a very final appeal against the repeatedly renewed freeze with the Federal Administrative Tribunal.

Another complex legal battle involving civil lawsuits has also been taking place in a court in the northern city of Basel, legal sources said.

"The legislation will be quicker, the application of the new law will take place much earlier than any court decision could be applied," Monfrini explained.

"In terms of restitution the law shall apply and restitution will take place," he added.

The Swiss foreign ministry declined to comment on its intentions once the new law comes into force.

Although the money in Switzerland was frozen, attempts to retrieve it were hampered over the years by the inability of impoverished Haiti and its successive governments to press a full legal case, as well as appeals by defence lawyers for the Brouilly foundation.

Those attempts only gained momentum with a 2008 criminal investigation that was launched by magistrates in Haiti against the former dictator, covering alleged corruption and embezzlement as well as violence during his reign, Monfrini explained.

However, they were almost dashed in January 2010 when Switzerland's supreme court blocked the Swiss government's request to return about 4.6 million dollars of the Duvalier assets.

The Federal Tribunal ruled at the time the charges against Duvalier motivating the bid, which dated back to 1986, fell under a 15-year time limit.

The Swiss government then renewed its freeze on the accounts, triggering a new bout of legal wrangling while it took up advice given by the supreme court in its ruling to change the law.

Switzerland's top judges explained that Swiss laws on international criminal assistance were "too strict for this kind of case".

Meanwhile, Haitian officials Tuesday whisked Duvalier away to court, two days after his surprise return from exile stunned the nation he ruled with an iron fist.

After intense questioning lasting well over an hour by the nation's chief prosecutor and a judge, Duvalier was escorted by police out of the luxury hotel where he had been holed up since he returned late Sunday.

Human rights groups have long pressed for Duvalier to face justice over the alleged torture and killings committed during his 15-year rule, but officials declined to say what charges he might face.

© 2011 AFP

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