Swiss freeze Ben Ali funds
Geneva - The Swiss government on Wednesday ordered a freeze on any funds that might be held by Tunisia's ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Switzerland, Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said.
The three-year blocking order announced after a regular cabinet meeting followed domestic political pressure as well as legal action by Tunisian exiles in Switzerland this week.
The Federal Council "decided to block with immediate effect any possible funds in Switzerland of former president Ben Ali," Calmy-Rey, who also serves as the country's president, said at a press conference.
The move also applies to assets held by "his entourage", the foreign ministry said in a statement.
"Switzerland wants to prevent its financial industry from being used to hide funds," Calmy-Rey explained.
She said the move was aimed at both preventing any assets that might be in Switzerland from being withdrawn and ensuring that Tunisia's new authorities would be able to retrieve any illicitly taken public assets through judicial assistance.
Tunisian prosecutors on Wednesday opened an inquiry into the assets of Ben Ali and his extended family, the official Tunisian news agency TAP reported.
Applies to property
While such freezes are usually directed at banks, the minister also underlined that "financial intermediaries" - commonly accountants or lawyers - who might be acting as proxies for Tunisia's former leadership were also legally obliged to follow due diligence rules.
"It is very unlikely that any funds were withdrawn" in recent days, she added.
The freeze, which came into force on Wednesday, also applies to sales or transfers of property in Switzerland, the statement said.
Ben Ali fled to exile in Saudi Arabia last Friday after a growing wave of street protests spelled the end of 23 years of iron-fisted rule in Tunisia.
The Swiss Socialist Party - of which Calmy-Rey is a member - asked the government to freeze any Ben Ali accounts during a parliamentary foreign affairs commission meeting.
A Swiss lawyer, Ridha Ajmi, on Monday also filed a legal request to freeze any assets, saying he was acting on behalf of about 30 people.
"We are asking for a criminal inquiry to determine whether or not funds that belong to the Tunisian people have been diverted... to private accounts or companies," he explained.
Ajmi told AFP he had also asked for international arrest warrants against Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and former interior minister Rafik Bel Hadji Kacem, claiming they had been involved in ordering police to open fire on protesters.
The Swiss federal prosecutor's office confirmed that it was examining the requests.