Gone are the days when Switzerland was said to “Lava whiter”, as the deputy Jean Ziegler wrote in the title of an essay (1). Today, the government of the Confederation is preparing to return to Uzbekistan 130 million Swiss francs (120 million euros). They are part of the frozen assets of Goulnara Karimova, daughter of a former president. This is only a first installment, because all the sums seized in Switzerland since 2014 as part of this investigation are around 800 million Swiss francs (740 million euros), a record.
In the 2000s, the eldest daughter of Islam Karimov, President of Uninterrupted Uzbekistan from 1991 until her death in 2016, was the glamorous face of this ex-Soviet republic: both a fashion designer and ambassador to the ‘UN and variety singer. She was also a formidable businesswoman, extorting huge bribes from foreign operators in order to enter the local mobile phone market.
Then the tide turned: Islam Karimov died on September 2, 2016. At 48 years old, Goulnara Karimova is now detained in her country while the investigations into her cases go through Cyprus, Latvia, Ireland, the United States or France…
In Switzerland, justice has spoken and the money must be returned to Uzbekistan. To ensure that it does not go to feed another network of corruption, it will be paid to a fund administered by independent associations. For this, Bern and Tashkent signed a framework agreement in early September 2020. He indicates that “The restitution of funds must benefit the people of Uzbekistan and aim to improve living conditions, strengthen the rule of law and fight impunity”.
This news rejoices the representatives of Uzbek civil society, even if they are aware of the traps that remain: “This Memorandum of Understanding advances the cause of justice. But more guarantees are needed so that funds are not re-appropriated by corrupt government networks, comments dissident Umida Niyazova, leader of the Uzbek Human Rights Forum, who lives in exile in Berlin. You have to be careful because there are more than 12,000 associations in Uzbekistan which are in fact controlled by the government. It will take full transparency on how the money will be spent. “
These guarantees are precisely the subject of a second text which seems fiercely debated: “Negotiations for the conclusion of this legally binding treaty have started, but it is difficult to say how long they will take”, soberly indicates Elisa Raggi, spokesperson for the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This recent procedure, which is intended to be exemplary, is the consequence of a Swiss text of 2016, the law on the blocking and restitution of assets of illicit origin, known as LVP. It was specifically adopted to organize the return of ill-gotten goods to the countries concerned by ensuring that the populations will be the ultimate recipients. It indicates that the restitution process “Is carried out by funding public interest programs” and “Associate non-governmental organizations as much as possible”.
For a long time, Switzerland was considered to be an accommodating country with the money of dictators. Things changed in the 2000s, when the Confederation agreed to end banking secrecy by accepting the automatic exchange of information. Then it became one of the pioneer countries in the restitution of funds seized in these cases of grand corruption.
“ A first version of the LVP had seen the light of day in 2010 to allow the restitution of the assets of Congolese Mobutu and Haitian Duvalier, which had been frozen for decades pending local proceedings. The risk was that the Confederation would be forced to return this money to the families of the fallen dictators ”, remembers François Memberz, lawyer at the Geneva bar. In recent years, Switzerland has been able to return potentate assets equivalent to 1.56 billion euros.
“Overall, this policy is a success. But there is room for improvement, because the Swiss judicial system still has great difficulty in sequestering funds ”, the lawyer notes. Several attempts at restitution have not succeeded to date. They concern, for example, Egypt, Ukraine or Tunisia.
“The return of seized assets is an international obligation. The United Nations Convention against Corruption makes it a fundamental principle and lays down the obligation to implement it, recalls Jean-Pierre Brun, World Bank expert in charge of an anti-money laundering program. The United States, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are the countries which have the most successful experience. “
Seen from France, Swiss practice is envied among NGOs fighting against money laundering. “Apart from the framework of mutual legal assistance, France has no law on restitution. If the State of origin becomes a civil party, it can obtain restitution for damages. Otherwise, the money is simply recovered by the French State ”, explains Sara Brimbeuf, lawyer responsible for advocacy on the return of embezzled assets, to Transparency international France.
In May 2020, France paid 10 million euros to Uzbekistan. But the money went directly to the state budget, with no guarantee on its use. Goulnara Karimova owned three properties in France: an apartment in the 16e arrondissement of Paris, a castle in Montfort-Lamaury, in the Paris region, and a villa in Gassin, on the Côte d’Azur. The apartment, a 688 square meter triplex with a terrace overlooking the Bois de Boulogne, has been sold. It was the proceeds of this sale that went to Uzbekistan.
A French elected official was moved by this gap in French law: the socialist Jean-Pierre Sueur tabled a bill in the Senate inspired by the Swiss model. It was adopted unanimously at first reading on May 2, 2019. Since then, it has been waiting to be included in the calendar of the National Assembly. Jean-Pierre Sueur says to himself “Fully committed” to bring the proposal to fruition and regrets that the subject is constantly postponed, “While it would be very simple to annex the text to a corrective finance law, if there was the political will”.
On the side of Transparency International, we note that another case of ill-gotten gains comes to the end of legal proceedings in France, that which concerns the son of the President of Equatorial Guinea Teodorin Obiang. In a few months, the confiscation of his property will become final. They are estimated at 150 million euros. “There is an urgent need in France to have a law on the return of confiscated property, Sara Brimbeuf alert. Otherwise, the money will simply be returned to the budget of France, and it will be a double penalty for the population of Equatorial Guinea which has already been robbed for the first time by its leaders. “