World

Exiled Haiti ruler can reclaim $4.6M: Swiss court

The family of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier can reclaim at least $4.6 million US from Swiss bank accounts that had previously been promised to aid groups, Switzerland's highest court has ruled.

Money had been earmarked for charities

The family of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier can reclaim at least $4.6 million US from Swiss bank accounts that had previously been promised to aid groups, Switzerland's highest court said Wednesday.

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, shown at a press conference in 1980, and his entourage have been accused by many Haitians of robbing millions from public funds before he was ousted in 1986. ((Kathy Willens/Associated Press))

The Federal Supreme Court in Lausanne reversed a lower court's ruling that the money should go to charities working in the impoverished Caribbean country. The decision was reached hours before Haiti's devastating earthquake on Jan. 12 but was not published until Wednesday. Such delays are common in Switzerland's legal system.   

The decision cannot be appealed, but the Swiss Foreign Ministry said it would try to keep the money blocked while it works on a new law dealing with assets of "criminal origin." It said the amount of money actually totalled $5.7 million, though the reason for the discrepancy was unclear.

The government "wants to avoid the Swiss financial centre serving as a haven for illegally acquired assets," the ministry said a statement, adding that a new law working retroactively could be ready later in February.

Duvalier succeeded his father, François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, Haiti's president from 1957 until his death in 1971.

By the time the junior Duvalier was ousted in 1986, he and his entourage had robbed millions from public funds, Haitians have alleged. Duvalier is believed to be living in exile in France and has always denied wrongdoing.

Family a 'criminal organization'?

The top court said the alleged crimes in the case fell outside the statute of limitations, reversing an August decision by a lower court that found the Duvalier family had acted as a "criminal organization" by diverting public funds through a Liechtenstein foundation to accounts in Swiss bank  UBS AG.

The Supreme Court said it was unhappy about the ruling released Wednesday but its hands were tied because the statute of limitations expired in 2001. It urged lawmakers to make it easier for assets belonging to deposed dictators to be repatriated to national governments.

Haiti made its first request for the money in 1986, shortly after Duvalier's ouster. The cash has been frozen ever since, but Switzerland has refused to give it back to Haiti because the Haitian government wasn't charging Duvalier with any crimes in its own justice system.

As a way out, the Swiss government had proposed giving the money to aid groups working in Haiti.

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