Ex-dictator's assets set to help Haitians

A picture of former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier hangs on a wall in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince Keystone

Switzerland is set to return the assets of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, frozen in Swiss bank accounts, for use in development projects in Haiti.

This content was published on February 12, 2009 - 13:18

The Federal Justice Office announced on Thursday that the exiled Duvalier and his entourage could not prove how they had obtained the funds, totalling about SFr7 million ($6 million).

"The Duvalier clan acted in the same way as a criminal organisation," the Justice Office said. "The statements submitted by the account holders failed to provide any evidence or explanation of the lawful origin [of the money]."

"Baby Doc" Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1971-1986 when he was overthrown and fled to France. Haitian authorities and international observers have accused him of misappropriating hundreds of millions of dollars from public coffers, some of which ended up in Swiss accounts.

The office's ruling is not yet definitive as the Duvalier family and other account holders have 30 days to make a final appeal to the Federal Criminal Court. During that time the money will remain in Switzerland.

Humanitarian needs

Officials in the Caribbean nation have tried for decades to retrieve the funds that were frozen in 2002 following a series of legal battles that appear to be drawing closer to an end.

Should appeals fail, the justice office said the money would be returned to Haiti on condition that it was used only for social or humanitarian projects.

A coalition of Swiss non-governmental agencies welcomed Thursday's ruling and asked the authorities in Bern to ensure a transparent restitution.

Eighty per cent of the population in the Caribbean nation live in poverty, making it the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Aids, corruption and a series of devastating hurricanes have compounded the suffering.

"The lack of clean drinking water and food hits hundreds of thousands of people," the coalition said in a statement. "The Haitian government urgently needs supplementary means to ensure the reconstruction of the country."

The Justice Office said it would make sure the Duvalier money would help the population by handing it to non-governmental organisations with proven track records for helping Haitians.

The foreign ministry has already contacted some of those groups and will work to monitor projects through the Swiss embassy in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Dirty money

The Justice Office's ruling is one of several throughout the years that have helped determine the fate of dubious assets held in Switzerland.

In 2007 the country backed an international initiative to help poor countries reclaim billions of dollars siphoned off their public accounts. In late 2008 the country started drafting legislation to further facilitate the process.

The foreign ministry says Switzerland has returned at least $1.6 billion (SFr1.87 billion) in ill-gotten gains that had been in accounts here, including $700 million linked to the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. That case helped spawn new laws that make it tougher for suspected crooks to reclaim their money by making them prove it was obtained legally.

Other repatriated funds include more than $650 million held in Swiss accounts by the late Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

In 1997 the country froze assets worth SFr10 million deposited by disgraced dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. In December 2008 the government there took steps to recover the assets, but legal wrangling has kept the accounts frozen.

Although the Swiss government in recent years has stepped up measures to combat the country from being a safe haven for dirty money, a United Nations and World Bank report noted in 2007 that Switzerland was sometimes slow in returning funds.

swissinfo with agencies


President: René Préval, since May 2006
Haiti population: 9.44 million
Life expectancy for men: 56
Life expectancy for women: 58
Number living with Aids: 280,000
GDP per capita: $1,400
Inflation rate (2008 estimate): 15.8%
Transnational issues: Transfer point for cocaine; cash smuggling

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Baby Doc

Jean-Claude Duvalier came to power in Haiti after his father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier died in 1971. He was 19 years old, making him the world's youngest ruler at the time.

While his father had been known for ruling with an iron fist, the younger Duvalier did make some steps to relax that grip and the United States restarted foreign aid programmes. However, the country remained an oppressed police state.

Observers say much of the money that Duvalier pilfered came from tobacco funds that had no accounting.

People began to revolt against the dictator shortly after Pope John Paul II visited the country (80% Catholic) and publicly called for better distribution of wealth. By 1986 he was forced to flee to France, where he is rumoured to be living with little money.

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