Switzerland’s top court ordered yesterday that some $7.11 million (R58 million) of assets of the late Zairean leader Mobutu Sese Seko be unfrozen, clearing the way for their return to his heirs.
The move is likely to embarrass the government, which is trying to keep Switzerland off an international blacklist of financial centres whose tax rules facilitate money laundering, Reuters reports.
“The banks will be informed that these funds have now been unblocked,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman said in answer to an enquiry.
The Swiss government initially froze the funds in 1997 at the request of the African state, now named the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and extended the freeze in 2008 to allow a lawyer representing Congo to launch a case to block the funds.
But the public prosecutor rejected the case, arguing that under Switzerland’s statute of limitations people surrounding Mobutu, who died in 1997, could no longer be considered a criminal organisation.
A Basel law professor, Mark Pieth, launched an appeal against this decision, which was rejected yesterday by Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court.
Mobutu’s dictatorship of more than 30 years impoverished the mineral-rich former Belgian colony, making Mobutu the embodiment of kleptocracy, rule by thieves.
The Swiss government ordered an amendment last year to laws governing funds deposited by foreign despots to shield them from the statute of limitations.
But the new bill is still being drafted and will not be submitted to parliament until next year, so that the Mobutu case was not affected.
Over the past 20 years Switzerland has returned to the states concerned some $1.6 billion (R13 billion) in illicit funds stashed in the Alpine country by strongmen including Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Haiti’s Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Nigeria’s Sani Abacha and Mobutu.