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Nailing His Assets

Former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben AliLast month, Tunisia’s citizens decided they’d finally had enough of their kleptomaniacal president Ben Ali, who managed to escape to Saudi Arabia.

By the time of his hasty departure, he’d ruled the country for 23 years and reportedly had expropriated for the private enjoyment of himself and his family about a third of the country’s economy.

The new Tunisian government — welcomed by the international community like a fresh-faced debutante — arrested 33 of his family members and issued an international warrant for the former president. It also started hunting for everything Ben Ali and his clan had stripped from the country’s shelves. 

How much loot is there?

Probably around $5 billion, according to a lawsuit filed in Paris by Sherpa, Transparency International France, and the Arab Commission for Human Rights. They’re alleging corruption, misusing public funds, and money-laundering. 

TI says the family of Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Trabelsi, could have up to 30 properties in Paris, the Alps, and the Cote d’Azur, and millions of dollars in French bank accounts.

Last week, pressed by Tunisia and the NGOs, the EU put a freeze on anything owned by Ben Ali and 46 of his family members and friends. By then, French authorities had already seized an executive jet at Le Bourget airport near Paris owned by the family of Ben Ali’s son-in-law. And Swiss officials had frozen bank accounts holding tens of millions of francs, and had grounded another executive jet in Geneva allegedly owned by the ex-president’s family.

Nicolas Beau, who co-wrote a book about Leila Trabelsi that was banned in Tunisia until last month, told the BBC it won’t be hard to prove that “holdings had been illegally acquired, due to a paper trail and to the sheer number of people involved in the family’s business dealings.”

“Despite the nature of the regime in Tunisia, a very strong tradition of regulation survived,” he said. “Everything was legislated for, everything was written down.

“Everyone had to deal with it, there are an innumerable number of witnesses.”

And, he might have added, people whose homes and businesses were expropriated by Ben Ali’s family aren’t likely to have forgotten about it.

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