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Tunisia set to lose stolen millons in Swiss banks

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 9, 2010, then-Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (front) waves to well-wishers after voting for the municipal elections next to his wife Leila (C) and his son-in-law the Tunisian businessman Sakher el-Materi (R) in Tunis. – Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started, has also been its relative success story — but celebrations will be muted when it marks one decade Thursday since protesters ousted its autocratic president. A preliminary count by Tunisian authorities in 2012 found that 338 people were killed and 2,147 wounded during the popular uprising. Those figures shrank to 129 killed and 634 injured in an online list published in October 2019 by the Tunisian Higher Committee on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP)

Tunisia could lose millions of dollars stashed in Switzerland by the family of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a senior official said Saturday.

The funds are currently frozen by Swiss authorities but a deadline to claw back funds ends midnight on Tuesday and restrictions then cease, a presidential official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Swiss authorities imposed a 10-year freeze on assets of Ben Ali and his clan amid a corruption probe on January 19, 2011, five days after the toppled leader fled to Saudi Arabia, where he later died.

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Swiss-based campaign group Public Eye, which investigates human rights violations by Swiss companies, estimates Ben Ali’s family and allies shifted some $320 million into Swiss banks in the years before his ouster.

Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s widow, and her wealthy businessman brother Belhassen Trabelsi, are among 30 to 50 of his relatives and associates who “could get hold of the money”, the source said.

“We are in touch daily with the Swiss authorities, but despite their understanding, it will be difficult to achieve anything” by the deadline, the source added.

The Swiss have reportedly demanded documents to prove the funds are indeed illegal, before they could return it to Tunisia’s government.

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Swiss authorities also want to know the legal status of members of the Ben Ali clan, many of whom faced warrants and trials in Tunisia for corruption, the source said.

The authorities have failed to compile the information due to political instability in Tunisia, which has seen nine government since 2011, the source added.

Swiss daily Le Temps said Swiss officials had offered to create a joint body to support Tunisian efforts to reclaim the cash.

But former Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in 2019, preferred to try retrieve funds through reconciliation deals with members of the Ben Ali clan.

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