GENEVA – Swiss authorities are preparing to lift a freeze on tens of millions of dollars’ worth of assets linked to former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a decade after the longtime autocrat was driven from power in an uprising that set off the so-called “Arab Spring” movement.
The release that could benefit relatives of Ben Ali, who fled with his family to Saudi Arabia in 2011 and died in 2019, has drawn the fury of advocacy groups in Tunisia who say the stash in Swiss banks should go to the Tunisian people.
The assets, totaling 60 million Swiss francs at the time (about $67 million today), were frozen for a maximum of 10 years as part of a Swiss government order that targeted the funds of Ben Ali and nearly 50 of his relatives.
The value of the assets has changed over time based on exchange rates, investment and other factors, the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs said.
The department said Swiss authorities repeatedly reached out to Tunisian counterparts before the expiration of the freeze at midnight from Monday to Tuesday.
Many of the assets faced two levels of freeze -- one under the federal 10-year order, and another based on pending criminal proceedings and judicial cooperation agreements, the department said.
A coalition of non-governmental organizations appealed to Tunisian President Kais Saied seeking an extension of the freeze.
Ben Ali, who served as president for more than 23 years, fled with his family to Saudi Arabia after mass protests erupted across the north African country — partly out of anger over systemic state corruption and the large wealth that his inner circle had accumulated.
He was survived by his wife, Leila Trabelsi, and children.
Global Finance Integrity, a U.S.-based think tank that tracks illicit financial flows, has estimated that Ben Ali’s total wealth could amount to roughly $9 billion in countries including Canada, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland.
Calls for the return of the assets have risen as Tunisia’s economic crisis has deepened. Economic output shrank 9% last year, while unemployment levels and attempts by Tunisians to migrate by sea to Europe have soared.
“These are ill-gotten goods which have to be relocated to Tunisia and be invested in the Tunisian economy” said Khayem Chemli of the international legal aid group Avocats Sans Frontieres, or Lawyers Without Borders.
Tunisian politician Abdellatif El Mekki wrote on Facebook: “Most importantly, it’s a cause of national honour.”
In a press release, the Tunisian presidency said Saied had raised the issue in meetings with Prime Minister Zichem Mechichi and the governor of Tunisia’s Central Bank with the view of restoring assets “looted” by the old guard — but gave no further details.
Ebel reported from Tunis, Tunisia. Bouazza ben Bouazza in Tunis contributed to this report.