On January 14, 2011, Tunisia’s President Zine El Abbedine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in the wake of a popular uprising against his 24 year-long rule. Ben Ali was the first head of State to fall in the Arab Spring – the outpouring of discontent against long standing autocracies in the region. Following his forced departure, the interim Tunisian government charged the former President with money laundering and drugs trafficking, and sent out international requests to obtain his arrest and the freezing of assets he allegedly stole. In 2011, Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for inciting violence and murder and also convicted (along with his wife) of wide scale theft.
Three years have passed, but efforts to uncover their assets are still incomplete and ongoing, raising concerns on the real impact of the efforts against impunity. Does this show that the Tunisian authorities and the international community have failed in their quest for justice?
While much remains to be done, it is wrong to dismiss the significant achievements that have been made to date. Firstly, notable progress and the recovery of some assets have happened with remarkable speed with further successes likely to follow in the coming months. Secondly, the Tunisian effort has set a precedent and a model for capacity building.
After the fall of Ben Ali, in February 2011, Tunisian authorities established - with the assistance of the StAR Initiative (a partnership of the World Bank and the UNODC) - a special committee for the recovery of stolen assets to put in place strategic planning, leadership, and cooperation – both domestic and international. The committee then designed a comprehensive strategy combining various investigative and legal tools, including domestic criminal prosecution, informal international cooperation, mutual legal assistance requests, as well as participation as a civil party in criminal proceedings in France and Switzerland.
The StAR Initiative also helped the Tunisian Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) gain access to global financial networks, as well as forge ties with organizations such as, Interpol, The Egmont Group (an informal international network of financial intelligence units) and Eurojust (the EU agency for judicial cooperation in criminal matters). StAR also helped facilitate important ties through the work of the Arab Forum on Asset Recovery. Last but not least, it provided the training and technical assistance for the creation and the reinforcement of specialized units in Tunisia and elsewhere.
Following these moves, more than $80M, two airplanes and two boats were identified and then frozen or seized in Switzerland, France, Belgium and Italy. One of the planes, seized by order of the Paris Prosecutor’s Office and owned by Ben Ali’s son in law, was returned to Tunis in July 2011. The other plane in Switzerland and the two yachts in Italy and Spain were also subsequently recovered. While the value of these assets represent only a small portion of what is estimated to have been stolen from Tunisia, their recovery was critically important in showing that property located in foreign jurisdictions can be returned even before the finalization of the legal cases.
In April 2013, an even more visible success demonstrated that the consistent and patient efforts of the Tunisian authorities and others were paying off. Tunisia recovered $28.8 million hidden in a Lebanese bank account controlled by Ben Ali’s wife. This success, which has to be confirmed by the Appeals court, was the result of unprecedented cooperation within the Arab World, strong political will in Lebanon, and efforts undertaken by the United Nations special advocate, Qatar’s Attorney General Al Marri, as well as the StAR initiative, to develop bilateral contacts between Lebanese and Tunisian practitioners.
In the coming months, there are good prospects that Tunisia stands to gain even more with the return of funds frozen in Switzerland and real estate identified in Paris. But getting the remaining carefully hidden assets will not be easy. The experience of the past three years has shown that while it takes time, it can be done. But it will be a complex, lengthy and uncertain process.
First, it will continue to require from Tunisian authorities lengthy investigations to get leads, follow money trails, lift corporate veils, establish beneficial ownership of bank accounts and other assets, and link them to criminal offences.
Second, it will require more mobilization in financial centers where assets or defendants are located. Tunisian authorities can continue to succeed only if their counterparts provide effective responses to their mutual legal assistance requests, and in some cases, show more proactive mobilization of resources and political will.
And third, international initiatives, including the Arab Forum and StAR, should provide even more assistance to initiate and boost bilateral cooperation between Tunisia and its counterparts through bilateral contacts, which were instrumental in past successes and will be crucial for future progress.
In sum, asset recovery for Tunisia is far from failure, but also short of success – showing what can and needs to be done. It proves that a comprehensive and coherent asset recovery strategy can produce significant progress in spite of major challenges. It is now time for financial centers, including in Europe, America and the Middle East, to deliver even more timely and effective assistance.