Criminal laws against “illicit enrichment” or “unexplained wealth” are among the more potent tools in the anticorruption toolbox. Though details vary across countries, typically an illicit enrichment law criminalizes a public official’s failure to provide a legitimate explanation for their possession of assets in excess of their lawful sources of income. The advantage, from an anticorruption perspective, of criminalizing illicit enrichment is the alleviation of the burden on the prosecution to gather evidence sufficient to prove bribery or embezzlement, which can often be difficult or impossible. Corruption can be inferred, the logic goes, from the government official’s possession of unusual and unexplained wealth. A further advantage is the law’s ability to capture instances of “influence peddling,” where a public official’s conduct might not have violated the specific laws on bribery and embezzlement, but still involves exploitation of authority to obtain gratuitous favors or preferential treatment that may show up in the form of unexplained wealth.
Illicit enrichment laws, however, have proved controversial because they seem to shift the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defendant, thus violating the bedrock principle of the presumption of innocence. Many experts disagree with this criticism, and constitutional courts in many countries have rejected it. However, some governments, and some constitutional courts, continue to maintain that illicit enrichment laws are incompatible with constitutional guarantees related to the presumption of innocence.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether illicit enrichment laws in any given country are constitutional, but one would think that the issue would be settled one way or the other. In Egypt, however, this constitutional controversy has led to a bizarre legal limbo that has persisted for nearly two decades. Continue reading