BERNE (Reuters) - Switzerland is to freeze assets belonging to Tunisia’s former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali as well as those of Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo, the Swiss foreign minister said on Wednesday.
“The government decided at its meeting today to freeze any funds in Switzerland of the ex-Tunisian President and his entourage with immediate effect,” Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said at a news conference in the capital.
The seven-member cabinet also agreed to freeze any assets belonging to Gbagbo, who is clinging to power in the world’s largest cocoa producer despite losing a presidential election to Alassane Ouattara on November 28.
“These measures are aimed at encouraging the two countries to present requests for judicial assistance in a criminal matter,” Calmy-Rey said.
“Switzerland wants to avoid our financial centre being used to hide funds illegally taken from the populations concerned,” added Calmy-Rey, a social democrat who currently also holds the rotating Swiss presidency.
Tunisia’s state news agency said the country’s new unity government intended to investigate the transfer of foreign currency abroad by members of Ben Ali’s extended family.
In recent years, Switzerland has worked hard to improve its image as a haven for ill-gotten assets.
The cabinet previously took unilateral measures to block funds in Swiss accounts held by deposed leaders including Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Nigeria’s Sani Abacha, buying time for foreign prosecutors to build a case for restitution of funds.
The order to freeze all potential assets of Ben Ali and his close associates and to prohibit any sale of real estate was taking immediate effect.
“The cabinet wants to avoid any risk that Tunisian state property is embezzled,” the Swiss foreign ministry said in a statement.
Regarding Gbagbo, Calmy-Rey said it was important that Switzerland not be used to get around a freeze on assets declared earlier this week by the European Union (EU).