By Simon Bradley
Anti-corruption campaigners have praised Switzerland’s move to block assets of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak but say funds should never have been allowed in.
The United States, the European Union and several countries have meanwhile been asked by Egypt to freeze the assets of former Egyptian officials, but Mubarak was not on the list.
The issue will be discussed by EU finance ministers on Tuesday.
Last Friday the Swiss government asked Swiss banks to search for and block any assets that might belong to Mubarak and ten members of his family and entourage, who stood down the same day after 30 years in power.
“This is an important step forward and we would hope that other financial centres will follow,” Daniel Thelesklaf, executive director of the Swiss-based International Centre for Asset Recovery, told swissinfo.ch.
“It is now up to the Egyptian Government to follow up on this and start criminal investigations.”
In an interview with Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag, Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey said Switzerland had to ensure it was not a haven for “dirty money … It cannot be that right at our door some people embezzle state funds and put them into their own pocket.”
Anouar Gharbi, a member of the Geneva-based Right For All non-governmental organisation, also welcomed the timely response.
“The government has learned its lesson from the Tunisian case of [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali, where it gave him and his family time to take out what they wanted from Swiss banks during the final days before he fled,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Last month, after the ousting of Tunisia’s former president, Switzerland froze bank assets estimated at $620 million (SFr600 million) of former Tunisian government officials.
Last Wednesday Right For All lodged a criminal complaint with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office against Mubarak and 20 members of his entourage – “a strict minimum” – urging them to block any assets they held in Switzerland.
Despite the government’s apparent swift announcement, some voices criticised the fact that money from Mubarak and Ben Ali might have ended up in Swiss banks.
“It was quick, but the money has been sleeping here for a long time. We could’ve been quicker identifying it,” bemoaned Thomas Chappot of the Bern Declaration NGO, taking a swipe at Swiss money-laundering law.
“Swiss banks do seem to have an effective system to freeze assets but whether they are effectively monitoring money that arrives in the first place…I don’t know; it’s always a challenge for banking authorities to check if what comes in comes from fraud or crime,” said Steven Philippsohn, a senior partner with London-based law firm PCB Litigation.
Mark Herkenrath, a tax expert at the Swiss Alliance of Development Organisations, felt a bank’s obligation to exercise due diligence was not taken seriously enough and politicians were not holding them to it.
“What is the point of being a pioneer in returning money but at the same time being the first point of call for wealth of dubious origin?” he told Reuters.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday that Britain had received a request from the Egyptian government to freeze the assets of several former Egyptian officials and that it would cooperate.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Paris had received a list from Cairo of figures whose assets should be frozen. The list “concerns neither the former president Hosni Mubarak nor members of his family,” he said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said no request had been received regarding Mubarak’s assets, but a senior US administration official said requests had been received regarding the assets of other Egyptian officials.
“There clearly needs to be a concerted international action on this,” said British Business Minister Vince Cable on Sunday.
How far these investigations will go ultimately depends on the political will of Egypt’s leadership, said Eric Lewis, a partner with Washington-based law firm Baach, Robinson & Lewis, which specialises in international asset tracing.
Bans and investigations
Inside Egypt there have been developments, however. On Sunday night it was reported that 43 people were now subject to orders freezing their assets and banning them from leaving Egypt. They are understood to include members of the Mubarak family.
Egyptian lawyer Ibrahim Youssri told Associated Press that he was seeking a criminal investigation of the Mubarak family and that the Egyptian general prosecutor had agreed to meet him to review evidence.
The British Serious Fraud Office is meanwhile already investigating financial entities linked to Mubarak’s sons, Gamal and Alaa.
The former president apparently remains at a private villa in the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh, where he is understood to have been joined by his family, including some members who returned from abroad. A number of Gulf countries are reportedly preparing to offer him asylum.
The subject of Mubarak’s wealth has long been a matter of speculation, with many Egyptians believing he and his family own up to $70 billion worth of assets, some of which is allegedly held in secret offshore bank accounts.