Switzerland says Mobutu case shows need to reform legal system

Bern, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) - The Swiss government says it “deplores” the fact that it was obliged 15 July to inform Swiss banks and the heirs to accounts that belonged to former Zaire (now DR Congo) dictator Mobutu Sese Seko that nearly CHF8 million in Swiss banks must be unfrozen, meaning the money returns to the family. “The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs deplores this result, which marks the end of 12 years of freezing of the assets in which all conceivable solutions were attempted. Since 1997 the Confederation has gone to considerable lengths to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion.”

The accounts were frozen in 1997, on Mobutu’s death, when evidence was found that the money, which apparently funded part of Mobutu’s lavish lifestyle, was linked to corruption.

Bern notes that the unhappy conclusion of the court case underscores the need for Switzerland to reform its legal framework: the Federal Council (cabinet) in December 2008 order the department to draft a new law, which is expected to be ready for consultation in 2010. The new law must make “it possible to confiscate and to return the illicit assets of politically exposed persons.”

The Federal Council mandated the new legal framework after money in accounts held by former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier’s family had to be returned because, as in the Mobutu case, the statute of limitations had run out. In that case the family actively fought the Swiss government’s actions but, according to the Swiss, the government in Haiti was too frail to fight its case as required by law. The unfreezing of Duvalier’s assets prompted a decision to change Swiss law.

In the Mobutu case, the Swiss government implies what some African observers have said, that the government of DR Congo did not make the necessary effort to get the money back to the people of the country, noting that “the lack of support over a long period from the Congolese authorities, together with the inflexibility of the Mobutu heirs, meant that it was not possible to reach an agreement.”

African media have alleged that the Mobutu clan and the people currently in power in DR Congo may have colluded to avoid a fight, in a behind-the-scenes agreement that would see the money returned to the Mobutu family. One of Mobutu’s sons has been a member of the government.

Whether there is any truth to this may now never be known, with the Swiss court case closed.

Background: “Congo people fail to get Mobutu money”, 15 July 2009, GenevaLunch

Swiss statement

Related: Afrik.com, BBC, Congo News Agency, IPS News, Pretoria News