African and Middle East countries looking to reclaim more than $1 billion allegedly stashed in Switzerland by "kleptocrat" leaders will need to untangle a vast web of accounts to prove their criminal cases, experts say.
Switzerland said on Thursday that it had frozen 70 million Swiss francs ($81.45 million) linked to former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and associates.
Earlier this week, it confirmed blocking a total of 830 million Swiss francs ($965.8 million) in assets linked to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and ousted presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia.
Fledging democracies must ensure their requests meet the standards of Swiss courts that enforce money-laundering laws tightened up in recent years, experts say.
"Accounts talk, you don't need to know the whole scope of embezzlement at first," said Geneva lawyer Enrico Monfrini who recovered the Swiss assets of Nigeria's Sani Abacha and is still trying to repatriate those of Haiti's Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.
"It's like a spider's web, you see the inflows and outflows and little by little you see the full picture," he said, recalling working for a decade to return $650 million in assets to Nigeria, painstakingly proving it was looted by the late Abacha and stashed in Switzerland.
"It's very forensic, real accountant's work," he said.
Over the past 25 years, Switzerland has also blocked funds held by Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and former Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, buying time for foreign prosecutors to seek restitution of funds despite lengthy appeals' processes.
"It's in their interest to work quickly but also to connect the dots, otherwise it could all end in an imbroglio," a Swiss judicial source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
"We're ready to help but can't do the on-site investigation for them in their place," he added.
Judicial officials must now show that domestic criminal proceedings are underway against their ousted leaders and that the offence committed is also punishable under Swiss law.
"Requests for legal assistance must always be in the context of criminal proceedings," Folco Galli of the Swiss federal office of justice in Berne told Reuters.
Egypt and Tunisia have submitted preliminary but incomplete requests to Switzerland, he said. "On Libya, we are willing to cooperate but we have to receive a request for cooperation".
Galli said it would be impossible for any Libyan judge to launch proceedings as long as Gaddafi clings to power, but noted that the funds were frozen for up to three years.
Libya said on Tuesday that Gaddafi had no personal money in Swiss bank accounts and any cash held in the country belonged to the government's foreign investment arm.
In recent months, the Swiss cabinet ordered a freeze on any assets linked to Gaddafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali and Gbagbo, requiring financial and other institutions to report suspicious funds.
But Switzerland never names the banks where dirty money is found. Some left-leaning Swiss politicians have also called for further tightening of its money-laundering laws.
One third of the $1.5 trillion in assets held offshore by Middle Eastern and African rulers is in Switzerland, some of it illegally obtained, according to the Swiss-based research firm MyPrivateBanking.
But often new governments chasing funds diverted by former rulers and their families are not able to trace them as they are well hidden in a network of interlinked trusts, companies and associates in Switzerland or elsewhere, it says.
So, any probes must be international, covering other jurisdictions including the United States and Britain's Channel Island tax haven of Jersey, experts say.
"Kleptocrats don't only put the product of their crime in Switzerland, it's a global affair," said Monfrini.
To contact the editor, e-mail: