Recovering Tunisia's money

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Former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

This story was originally covered by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

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Protestors took to the streets again in the Tunisian capital today, demanding that allies of the ousted president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, be removed from power. Ben Ali himself has already fled to Saudi Arabia. Now the hunt is on for the millions in cash and gold that he and his family is rumored to have taken out of the country.

Switzerland froze Ben Ali's holdings there, and France said its anti-money laundering agency is monitoring his assets. The French government was among the last to criticize Ben Ali's crackdown on the protests in Tunisia over the past few weeks. But it is the first to announce it is trying to block assets of the toppled president.

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said banks have been asked to inform the government agency that investigates money laundering of any unusual movement of funds in Tunisian accounts in French banks. She says any suspicious transfers could be blocked for 48 hours, and the funds could be frozen, if the current government in Tunisia government requests it.

In Switzerland, the government has already frozen Ben Ali's assets. There's still a lot of speculation about just how much money Ben Ali has taken out of Tunisia. Forbes magazine estimates he and his family are worth about $5 billion. Their assets in Tunisia include real estate, an airline, supermarket chains, and newspapers and television stations. It is thought they control about half the Tunisian economy. In cables posted on WikiLeaks, a U.S. diplomat compared Ben Ali and his relatives to a mafia family.

French journalist Xavier Harel said the family head is Ben Ali's wife, Leila Trabelsi, who used her marriage to enrich her family. "She used to be a hairdresser," he said, "so she doesn't belong to a rich family, but once she married Ben Ali and he became president, her three brothers became very rich thanks to her close connection to President Ben Ali." Harel said the family has accumulated much wealth and controls many companies in Tunisia. "It's hard to do business in Tunisia if you're not connected to one of them," he said.

Harel said Ben Ali has likely stashed most of what he has taken out of the country in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But Ben Ali maintained close relations with the French government, and made frequent visits there. It is known that the former leader has at least three villas in France, worth tens of millions of dollars.

The anti-corruption organization, Transparency International, said it is likely Ben Ali also has millions in stocks and savings. Sherpa, another anti-corruption group, asked a French prosecutor to press criminal charges against Ben Ali for misuse of public funds. Sherpa lawyer William Bourdon said prosecutors must act quickly. "Every minute counts," Bourdon said. "At any moment, a member of this corrupt network is organizing the transfer of their funds to friendlier places, such as Singapore."

If the criminal charges go ahead, French investigators could trace and freeze Ben Ali's holdings, with the hope of eventually returning some of the assets to the people of Tunisia.

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PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

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