GENEVA Switzerland has blocked nearly one billion Swiss francs ($1.07 billion) in stolen assets linked to dictators in four countries at the centre of the Arab Spring - Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia - the Swiss foreign ministry said on Tuesday.
Swiss authorities are cooperating with judicial authorities in Tunisia and Egypt to speed restitution of the funds, but it is expected to take years, said Valentin Zellweger, director of the international law department at the Swiss foreign ministry.
"Today a total of one billion francs is blocked in the framework of Arab Spring," Zellweger told a news briefing, giving the latest figures for funds frozen since January 2011.
The bulk of the assets, nearly 700 million francs, are tied to former President Hosni Mubarak and his entourage, he said.
Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter held talks in Cairo on Sunday with his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Kamal Amr on judicial cooperation to restore the embezzled funds, he said.
Some 60 million francs linked to ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has also been blocked in Swiss coffers, Zellweger said.
The Swiss government acted swiftly, ordering a freeze on any accounts held by Ben Ali five days after he was toppled, and within half an hour of Mubarak's fall in February 2011, he said.
"For the moment there are 80 people from these two countries who have their accounts blocked in Switzerland, so as you can imagine this implies an enormous amount of work. It involves not only Ben Ali and Mubarak but also their entourages," he said.
Swiss authorities have found more than 140 accounts tied to the two north African leaders and their associates, and are tracing tens of thousands of financial transactions, he said.
The Swiss government plans to submit draft legislation to parliament early next year aimed at strengthening its legal arsenal for swiftly freezing and repatriating proceeds stashed by corrupt regimes, he said.
The law would probably not be adopted until 2015 after consultations are held with lawmakers, cantonal authorities, and the Swiss Bankers Association, Zellweger told Reuters.
"In the past, the affair that was resolved most quickly was Abacha and it took 5 years," he said, referring to assets linked to the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha.
GADDAFI, ASSAD FUNDS
In line with U.N. Security Council sanctions, 100 million francs linked to the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi remains blocked in Switzerland. Other Libyan funds have been released as sanctions were eased on state-run enterprises, Zellweger said.
Some 100 million francs linked to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, associates and Syrian companies are blocked in line with European Union sanctions adopted by non-EU Switzerland.
Switzerland broadened sanctions against Syria on Aug 14, banning three Syrian firms, including the national airline, from doing business in the country, and imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 25 more Syrians, mainly military officials.
Switzerland has worked hard to improve its image as a haven for ill-gotten gains, seizing the assets of deposed dictators and agreeing in 2009 to soften strict bank secrecy to help other countries catch tax cheats.
The neutral Alpine country, which requires its banks to report accounts of suspicious origin, says it has restored a total of $1.7 billion embezzled by strongmen including the late Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire.
"It's a continuation of the policies that the Swiss Federal Council started 25 years ago in the case of Ferdinand Marcos. The Swiss government has made it very clear that funds of illegal origin are not welcome in Switzerland," Zellweger told Reuters Television.
"No other financial centre has recovered so much funds for their countries of origin," he said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Stephen Nisbet)