Asset recovery in the dock

This week senior members of the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) initiative, a joint programme of the World Bank and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime meet in Paris to step up efforts to find and repatriate stolen assets. Here, Daniel Lebègue, president of TI France, explains what his organisation is doing on this issue.

Two years ago, Transparency International France (TI France) started a legal action to promote stolen asset recovery, something never done before. The case highlights one of the main principles of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) which clearly calls on signatories to cooperate to return stolen assets to their home countries. France, like 144 other countries world wide, is part of UNCAC. We wanted to show that just signing the convention is not enough. Indeed, whereas worldwide estimates of stolen assets range from US$20-US$40 billion, less than US$5 billion has been returned in the past 15 years.

The difficulties we encountered in our action, despite an accumulation of police evidence, show just how much need there is for legal clarity, political will and greater transparency in the world of asset recovery.

Our involvement started on 2 December 2008, when together with a Gabonese citizen, Gregory Ngbwa Mintsa and with juridical support of the civil society organisation Sherpa, TI France lodged a complaint with civil party petition in Paris against three African heads of state which claims possible concealment of diverted public funds. The complaint targets circumstances under which Denis Sassou Nguesso from Congo-Brazzaville, Teodoro Obiang from Equatorial Guinea and Omar Bongo from Gabon and their relatives acquired huge patrimonies in France.

The case had already been presented to the courts. A complaint filed in 2007 by three civil society organisations resulted in a police inquiry that found the defendants and their families owned a total of 58 apartments, 182 bank accounts and 18 cars. All three countries are in the bottom half of the UN’s Human Development Index.

It was unclear that these assets could have been accumulated on their civil servant pay alone. Moreover, there are serious presumptions of diversion of public funds against them. These suspicions were addressed in well documented records from international organisations (including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund), NGOs, or even creditors of these States.

On May 5 2009, the judge who heard the case decided that it could go forward to the next stage where the accusations would be further investigated. This was the first time a case brought by an anti-corruption organisation was given a green light. (The civil party petition of Gregory Ngbwa Mintsa was dismissed). A few days later, the Public Prosecutor appealed against the decision regarding TI France. On 29 October 2009, the court of appeal overturned the decision.

As we believed this ruling was made on questionable legal grounds, we lodged an appeal to a higher court, which has yet to hand down its decision. If the case goes forward, a judge will be assigned to look into how the assets were acquired and how the large number of bank accounts received the funds.

We would clearly welcome an investigation like this because it would also show how financial intermediaries are able to facilitate these kinds of transactions. The investigation should look at the banks named in the first inquiry and question their compliance with international money laundering legislation.

We are convinced that, sooner or later, this case of “biens mal acquis” – or stolen assets – will be successful. The huge amount of support, in France, internationally and particularly in Africa, are testimony to this. We’ve broken the taboo on the public debate on how illicit gains from the South are welcomed in North. This, we believe, is only the beginning. 

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