The Swiss U-Turn on Asset Return Explained

Historically, a Swiss bank has been the bank of choice for corrupt leaders wanting to hide money. The reality is quite different today.  Just ask Tunisia’s ousted strong man Ben Ali, deposed Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich, or the relatives of deceased former Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier, of the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, or of Hosni Mubarak, the recently passed Egyptian president.  All believed money stolen from their nations’ citizens was safe in a Swiss bank.

At the time, they were not wrong. Dating back to when its secrecy rules protected the wealth of France’s Catholic kings from the prying eyes of nosey Protestant journalists, Swiss law permitted banks to take money with few questions asked and sanctioned those disclosing information about an account or its holder. Strict bank secrecy laws gave the Swiss financial industry an enormous advantage over other financial centers; it’s one reason why today financial services plays an outsized role in the Swiss economy — accounting for 10 percent of the GDP, twice the average of other OECD nations.

As the Duvaliers, Abachas, and Murabanks of the world learned to their chagrin  however, over the past decade Swiss policy has made a sharp U-turn.  Despite the weight of history and tradition, and the economic interest of so many Swiss citizens, current Swiss policy not only no longer condones the deposit of stolen assets in its banks, it now demands that banks and others in the financial services industry come to the aid of governments searching for money stolen by former rulers and cronies.  No other nation today goes to such lengths to help countries recover stolen assets.

Swiss lawyers François Membrez and Matthieu Hösli document this extraordinary change in Swiss policy in How To Return Stolen Assets: The Swiss policy pathway. Just published by the Geneva Centre for Civil and Political Rights, the two explain how Swiss  asset recovery law has turned Switzerland from the destination of choice for stolen funds into the least hospitable jurisdiction in the world.  The paper is an essential guide to Swiss law on asset recovery and provides a blueprint for other nations wanting nothing to do with stolen assets.

 

Asset Recovery: Report from Angola

Angola appears at last to have turned the corner in the fight against corruption.  The long-awaited trial of two “big fish,” the son of the former president and a former central bank governor, for looting the sovereign wealth fund began December 9.  While the international media have focused on what the trial means for the government’s fight against corruption  (Reuters story here, Bloomberg here, and BBC here), a less heralded equally significant development is quietly unfolding in Eduarda Rodrigues’ office. Deputy prosecutor general and since January head of the newly created asset recovery agency (Serviço Nacional vai Recuperar Activos), Rodrigues has begun slowly clawing back assets corrupt Angolan officials have stolen over the years. 

Below is an account the results to date taken from a November presentation to the Norwegian Corruption Hunters Network.

AssetQuantityAmount Kz
Properties2519,438, 912, 257
Vehicles2110,000,000
Cash Kwanza33,879,229
Cash Dollars322,832
  19,482,791,487
approx $40 million

As the table shows, Rodrigues’ agency has recovered assets worth more than 19 billion Angolan Kwanza or some $40 million along with more than $300,000 in U.S. currency. 

Rodrigues’ efforts began with the expiration of the Law of Repatriation of Financial Resources.   Passed June 26, 2018, it gave those holding stolen assets 180 days to voluntary return them without sanction.  Few took the government up on its offer (here), apparently believing the law was meant simply to show the international community the government was doing something to fight corruption. 

As Rodrigues and her growing team of experts expand their work, an ever larger number of corrupt official will regret passing on amnesty.   Law enforcement authorities in jurisdictions where Angolan stolen assets may be stashed now have a trustworthy partner to work with to see that monies stolen from the Angolan people are returned.

 

Will the Swiss Condone Torture in the Rush to Return Assets to Uzbekistan?

Allegations of torture have dogged the planned return of stolen assets from Switzerland to Uzbekistan for years (here). In a recent interview, a cellmate of one of the alleged torture victims has given the claims new life.  And should give Swiss citizens and their government pause before proceeding with any return.

The assets to be returned are the several hundred million dollars in bribes paid to Gulnara Karimova for the grant of mobile phone licenses in Uzbekistan, something within her power as daughter of the country’s then president.  She stashed most of the money in Switzerland, and when the scheme was exposed, Swiss prosecutors promptly opened a money laundering case against Gulnara and her accomplices. From the outset, the Swiss government made it clear that, if and when defendants were found guilty, the laundered funds would be returned to Uzbekistan.

A breakthrough came in 2018 when Gayane Avakyan, one of Gulnara’s accomplices, signed a Swiss Summary Penalty Order confessing to her role in the money laundering scheme and giving up any claim to the laundered funds.  The order was signed while she was serving time in an Uzbekistan prison, and because of multiple, credible reports that torture is commonly practiced in Uzbek prisons, questions were immediately raised about whether torture or the threat of torture was used to get Avakyan to sign.  A prison cellmate now says she was in fact subjected to a particularly harsh form of torture while incarcerated. Continue reading

Guest Post: Toward a Meaningful “Common African Position on Asset Recovery”

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mat Tromme, Director of the Sustainable Development & Rule of Law Programme at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, who contributes the following guest post:

It’s no secret that kleptocratic rulers in Africa have robbed their countries of substantial assets that could have  otherwise been used to promote development and social welfare. Indeed, the amounts are often staggering: $16 billion reportedly stolen by former Libyan President Gaddafi; $1 billion by Gambia’s ex-President Jammeh; billions by former Congolese President Kabila; and the list goes on. Recently, Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crime Commission suggested that up to $50 billion has been looted from Africa, and whether or not particular estimate is accurate, there’s little doubt the problem is serious. More troubling is the fact that only a small proportion of these stolen assets have been recovered and repatriated to the country of origin.

As part of the effort to address the challenges of asset recovery—and to give African states more clout in negotiating the terms and conditions of asset return with the states that initially seize the stolen loot—African countries are currently undertaking an effort to develop a “Common African Position on Asset Recovery” (CAPAR). Incidentally, a common african position was the chosen theme of this year’s African Union Anti-corruption day. At this early stage, it seems likely that this effort will result only in a political proclamation (perhaps within the framework of this month’s UN General Assembly), one that will re-emphasize the importance of the speedy and unconditional return of assets, and call for better collaboration across countries. That’s a good start, but not enough! Developing a pan-African position on asset recovery—perhaps similar to the multilateral framework adopted by the Mercosur countries and by the EU—is a worthwhile endeavor, one that will likely produce tangible benefits only if it goes beyond mere statements of intent or general principles, and lays out some concrete steps to translate the vision into reality.

Ideally, CAPAR should seek to streamline policies and resources devoted to recovering assets and developing better investigative and prosecutorial capacity across African states, for example by implementing cross-border investigations and fostering collaboration, experience and information-sharing between countries. There are various ways to achieve this broad objective: Continue reading

Guest Post: It’s Time for Plan B on Disbursing the Obiang Settlement Money to the People of Equatorial Guinea

Today’s guest post is from the civil society group EG Justice, a civil society organization that promotes the rule of law, transparency, and the protection of human rights in Equatorial Guinea. (For a longer discussion of the issues raised in this blog post, please visit the EG Justice website: www.egjustice.org.)

Last month, Professor Stephenson asked: “Whatever Happened with that Charity the Obiang Settlement Was Supposed to Fund?”  Not coincidentally, thousands of people in Equatorial Guinea have been asking themselves that same question for the last five years, and they have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. We are not entirely surprised by the impasse. When one drives into a cul-de-sac, with clear road signs warning ahead of time that there is no exit, one should only expect to return to the entry point. Likewise, when negotiating with authoritarian kleptocrats who consider themselves above the law and who are accustomed to acting with absolute impunity, it would be naïve to expect them to negotiate fairly.

The settlement between Equatorial Guinea and the U.S. appears to anticipate this impasse, laying out several options. The settlement first lays out what we might call “Plan A”:  Within 180 days, the U.S. authorities and the defendant (Teodorin Nguema Obiang) are to jointly select a charity to receive the funds realized from the sale of Nguema’s seized assets, with that charity to use the funds for the benefit of the citizens of Equatorial Guinea. But in apparent anticipation of the difficulties in reaching such an agreement, the settlement goes on to lay out a “Plan B,” according to which, if the U.S. and Nguema can’t mutually agree on a charity within 180 days of the sale of the assets, a three-member panel is to be convened to receive and disburse the funds—with one member of the panel chosen by the U.S., one by Nguema, and one, the Chair, by mutual agreement. Again anticipating the possibility that the parties will be unable to agree, the settlement has a “Plan C” (or a “Plan B-2”): If the parties can’t agree on a panel Chair, within 220 days after the sale of the property, the court retains the discretion to order the parties to participate in mediation, or the court may simply select a panel Chair directly. Continue reading

A Plan To Share FCPA Penalties with Brazil has Been Thwarted… by Brazil: The Supreme Court’s Invalidation of the Lava Jato Foundation

A frequent criticism of how the US Department of Justice (DOJ) enforces the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) is that the fines recovered typically go to the US Treasury, rather than being used to make reparations for the damages caused by corruption in the countries where the bribery took place. Those who hold that view were likely encouraged by the non-prosecution agreement (NPA) that the DOJ concluded with Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned oil company, in September 2018. The US enforcement action against Petrobras is a development of the so-called Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation, in which firms paid off some Petrobras’ senior employees to benefit them in the contracts they had with the oil company. Such senior employees also shared a portion of the briber of politicians and political parties. In Brazil, Petrobras (and its shareholders, including the Brazilian federal government) are considered the victims of this scheme, but the US DOJ considered Petrobras a perpetrator (as well as a victim), because Petrobras officials had facilitated the bribe payments, in violation of the FCPA. Thus, the DOJ brought an enforcement action against Petrobras, and the parties settled via an NPA that required Petrobras to pay over US$852 million in penalties for FCPA violations. But—and here is the interesting part—the NPA also stated that the US government would credit against this judgment 80% of the total (over US$682 million) that Petrobras would pay to Brazilian authorities pursuant to an agreement to be negotiated subsequently between Petrobras and the Brazilian authorities.

This unusual agreement was the result of unusually close cooperation between U.S. and Brazilian authorities, especially the Lava Jato Task Force (group of federal prosecutors handling a series of Petrobras-related cases). After the conclusion of the NPA between the DOJ and Petrobras, the Task Force then entered into negotiations with Petrobras and reached an agreement under which Petrobras would use US$682 million that it would otherwise owe to the US government to create a private charity, known unofficially as the Lava Jato Foundation, with the Foundation using half of the money to sponsor public interest initiatives, and the other half to compensate minority shareholders in Petrobras. According to the agreement, the Foundation would be governed by a committee of five unpaid members from civil society organizations, to be appointed by the Task Force upon judicial confirmation. Once created, the Task Forcewould have the prerogative to have one of its members sitting at the Foundation’s board.

This resolution of the Petrobras case seemed to be a win-win resolution and a promising precedent for future cases: The US imposed a hefty sanction for violation of US law, but most of the money would be used to help the Brazilian people, who are arguably the ones most harmed by Petrobras’s unlawful conduct. Yet this arrangement has proven extremely controversial in Brazil, both politically and legally. Indeed, the issue has divided the country’s own federal prosecutors: The Prosecutor General (the head of the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, from which the Lava Jato Task Force enjoys a broad independence) challenged the creation of the Foundation as unconstitutional. She prevailed on that challenge in Brazil’s Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federalor STF), which suspended the operation of the Foundation.

What, exactly, was the legal argument against the creation of the Lava Jato Foundation, and what are the implications of the STF’s ruling for this approach to remediating the impacts of foreign bribery going forward?

Continue reading