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Swiss Decision to Return Mobutu Millions to Family Widely Condemned


The decision by Switzerland's highest court to return millions of dollars of Zaire's former president, Mobutu Sese Seko, to his family, has been widely condemned in the country. Critics say it would have been better to use the former dictators money for humanitarian purposes in the current Democratic Republic of Congo.

Foremost critic, Mark Pieth, says the decision by Switzerland's top court to unblock Mobutu Sese Seko's funds will do nothing to enhance the country's reputation.

"This is a setback," Pieth said. "This is very bad for the image of Switzerland as a financial center. And, it is bad for the Democratic Republic of Congo."

Switzerland is mired in a number of financial scandals. The European Union accuses the government of facilitating money laundering because of its lax tax rules. It is threatening to put Switzerland on an international blacklist of financial centers if it does not clean up its act.

Critics say the ruling by the Federal Criminal Court to return $6.68 million to the former Zairean dictator's heirs will not help the government's quest to stay off the blacklist.

Switzerland blocked assets by the late ruler and his family in 1997 following a request from the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire. It extended the freeze in 2008 to allow a lawyer representing the Congo to mount a case to keep the funds blocked. The DRC government says the money was stolen.

In April 2009, the Swiss Prosecutor's Office said the statute of limitations had run out and the money should be given to Mobutu's heirs.

Mark Pieth, who is a professor of criminal law at Basel University, launched a last-ditch appeal in April to keep the assets frozen. He calls the decision to reject his case unfortunate. And says the system was stacked against him and against the Congolese government.

"You know the Federal Attorney never ever gave the Democratic Republic of Congo a chance to be in a position in this procedure at all," Pieth said. "They had no idea what was going on. They had no access to the files. They were not in a position to make an appeal and they also blocked out everybody else. That was the reason why we made our appeal because everything is treated as secret and there is no discussion of my arguments that I put forward that Mobutism is still an existing reality in Congo today."

Pieth says Mobutism, as he calls it, is a criminal organization. But, the public prosecutor argued that since the statute of limitations has passed, the people surrounding Mobutu could no longer be considered a criminal organization.

Non-governmental organizations condemn the release of Mobutu's assets to his family as a backward step. They say the money should have been used to provide humanitarian assistance to the many victims of ongoing conflict in the eastern Congo.

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