Source AP ©

Former Haitian dictator's family to get money back

Money stashed away in Switzerland by Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier could be returned to his family as soon as next month.

All legal efforts to prevent 7.6 million Swiss francs (US$6.2 million; 4.6 million EUR) currently frozen in Swiss bank accounts from being released have been exhausted, the head of the ministry's international law department, Paul Seger, told The Associated Press.

The government in Haiti tried to recover the funds after Duvalier was ousted in 1986, but the judicial process ground to a halt in the chaos that engulfed the Caribbean country during the years that followed.

"It was never proved in a court that the money was of criminal origin, and that would have been necessary for us to be able to confiscate it," Seger told the AP.

To prevent the money going back to the ex-dictator or his family, the Swiss government blocked the accounts in 2002 in the hope that the legal process could be restarted or a deal reached with the family. But according to Seger, the government's authority to block the funds runs out June 3.

After that date, the Duvalier family will theoretically be able to access the funds via a complicated chain of ownership involving a foundation in the tiny principality of Liechtenstein and a company in Panama, he said.

"Unless another solution is found at the last minute, the freeze will be lifted on June 3," said Seger, adding that a complex legal dispute between the Duvalier family and its lawyers means ownership of the money will likely not be resolved immediately.

"But it will be beyond our power," he said.

The Swiss government tried for years to reach an agreement with the family to avoid the embarrassment of handing over money which many in Haiti consider to have been stolen from public funds - allegations Duvalier has always denied.

"We had reached a resolution, in principle, which would have seen a large part of the money go to charitable projects in Haiti, and the rest returned to the family," Seger said.

"But then the family seems to have changed its mind" and simply waited until the Swiss government's power to freeze the money expired, he said.

Switzerland's highest court ruled in 2006 that an indefinite freeze on privately owned funds was unconstitutional. The case involved 8 million francs (US$6.5 million; 4.8 million EUR) deposited in Swiss banks by the former Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko, which are due to be unblocked in 2008.

Seger said he did not believe the Duvalier money could be retained any longer.

"If we maintained the blockade the lawyers would go straight to the Swiss federal court, and we have not received a positive response from Haiti to our suggestions that the process of international legal assistance be resumed."

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