Swiss seek to facilitate restitution of dictator loot

ZURICH (REUTERS) - Switzerland proposed on Wednesday a new law to make it easier to freeze assets stolen and salted away by foreign leaders and return them to their countries of origin.

The draft law would allow Switzerland to freeze the assets of so-called politically exposed persons, or PEPs, as a preventative measure and would set up a framework to confiscate and return assets to the countries from which they were taken.

"The focus is on making the restitution of stolen assets more efficient," the Swiss Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"The draft act - the first of its kind in the world - contains a set of clear provisions that will be helpful in this effort."

Switzerland has struggled in recent years to shrug off its decades-old image as a haven for ill-gotten gains by seizing the assets of deposed dictators and agreeing in 2009 to soften strict bank secrecy to help other countries catch tax cheats.

Swiss authorities were swift to act at the onset of the Arab Spring in early 2011, and blocked nearly 1 billion Swiss francs (S$1.3 billion) in assets linked to former rulers in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, as well as to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, where civil war is stretching into its third year.

But legal experts say the return of these assets to the relevant countries could take years. Geneva-based lawyer Enrico Monfrini, who has been mandated to track down looted assets by Nigeria, Tunisia and others, has said the process is time consuming and frustrating.

Mr Viktor Vavricka, head of Switzerland's asset-recovery task force, said in an email that the law would allow the Swiss to confiscate assets even when the affected state cannot supply the necessary legal support, for example because of conflict within the country.

Switzerland has already returned to the country of origin some 1.7 billion Swiss francs held by former dictators like Nigeria's Sani Abacha or Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, the ministry said.

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