Recovering Ousted Tunisian President Ben Ali's Assets

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: Neighboring Tunisia is looking ahead after holding the first free elections of the Arab Spring. It's been 9 months since the fall of Tunisia's long-time ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. He's now in exile in Saudi Arabia; thought to be living off the considerable wealth that he and his family accumulated during his 23 years in power. Tunisia wants to get those assets back. The interim government in Tunis has hired Enrico Monfrini and his Swiss law firm to do the job. Enrico Monfrini has worked on other cases recovering assets from corrupt regimes. He says there are common elements to such cases.

Enrico Monfrini: There is a head of state and there is his entourage and his friends who all make money in a rather criminal manner. So the 'kleptocrats', if I can call them like that…

Mullins: Kleptocracy.

Monfrini: They normally steal or help others to steal, but they close their eyes to thefts committed by others and they normally don't enrich themselves that much. It's more to do with their wife's children, nephews, sons-in-law, friends of their cronies and you name it.

Mullins: Give us a good example that you've run into of how that happens.

Monfrini: Well, for instance, there is this son-in-law of Mr. Ben Ali. This guy wants to import Mercedes Benz cars into Tunisia. He goes to Ben Ali and says, "Give me the right to have the exclusive license to import Mercedes Benz cars into Tunisia," and he gets that.

Mullins: So the son-in-law gets a license to import Mercedes Benz cars into Tunisia. People who are wealthy enough can afford them. He gets incredibly rich off something like this? Is that right?

Monfrini: He can, he can, because he starts with Mercedes Benz and then imports Toyota, and then he'll become like the king of the expensive cars in Tunisia.

Mullins: So where do you go with something like this as an example? Where do you go with something like that?

Monfrini: I am in search of the money which this guy made.

Mullins: Which he made…and how do you even begin to look for them.

Monfrini: This is only an example you asked me to give. So, I look into that because I am given documents in Tunisia. And that's where I am going soon to be able to start my investigation to gather information about the targets — people you want to go after, different accomplices and so forth. So you need a list. You need to know how they are linked to the power or the former power. You need to gather documents which the authorities have in order to try to identify the existence of the first possible accounts available here and there. Not necessarily in Switzerland where I work from, but in other countries.

Mullins: Ultimately, what do you expect to find? Do you have any idea what 100% of the holdings might be worldwide from Ben Ali?

Monfrini: No. I don't know how much. I know that I will probably find quite a lot of money, but I don't know how much.

Mullins: And what kind of assets are we talking about then?

Monfrini: Money, real estate, participation in different businesses in France, Canada, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, many countries of the Middle East and so forth.

Mullins: Anything here in the US?

Monfrini: Most probably, yes.

Mullins: Most probably, where?

Monfrini: I can't tell you [laughs]. I can't tell you because I just started. Maybe, if you call me in 2 weeks or 3 weeks, I'll be able to give you more details, but at this stage I don't know. I just have a few clues.

Mullins: Well, let's say that you do get a few more leads and you are able to find what you believe are stolen assets, how do you go about proving that you can tie them to the former Tunisian President?

Monfrini: Well, that's the easiest thing to do because the proof comes with the accounts. So, when I manage to identify the existence of 1 or 10, 20 or 100s or 1,000s of accounts around the world, I go to these various countries and I ask the authorities of these countries to cooperate. And I am sure they will cooperate in this case very much, and they will help us to warn the banks to freeze the money. So, that's the job.

Mullins: That was Enrico Monfrini of the Swiss law firm, Monfrini Crettol & Partners in Geneva.