Between January and March this year, CiFAR campaigned for the EU to keep the assets of the former rulers of Egypt and Tunisia and their families frozen. We were speaking about the decision of the EU in 2011 to issue orders, requiring all EU countries (member states) to identify assets owned by named people and put in place measures to prevent those people from selling property or removing money outside of the EU.
Five years after the Arab Spring ejected Mubarak and Ben Ali from power, very few convictions against former regime members and officials confirming that those assets were stolen through corruption have been issued. Political will to act seriously against those crimes is weak. So why have we continued to argue that the EU should keep the assets frozen and why will we continue to do so in the future?
This is a difficult question and one where arguments about the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, as well as the right to property of those whose assets have been frozen, but who have not yet been convicted of a crime, come into play. We should also ask ourselves about the credibility of the same governments to prevent returned assets from being stolen once again.
However, and despite these issues, we will campaign for the assets to continue to be frozen for three reasons.
Firstly, legal processes to prosecute the persons affected by the sanctions, accused of stealing the funds through corruption, are ongoing. These processes are certainly long and there have been substantial setbacks, but prosecutions have happened and may happen in the future. Also, the insistence on requiring countries of origin to prosecute for the theft of public assets is not always straightforward or easy, particularly as in some countries where corrupt political leaders like Ben Ali tailored laws to enable corruption.
Secondly, the fact that there has not yet been a successful legal proceeding with a final court judgement in the countries of origin should not allow EU member states to unfreeze the assets. On the contrary: the fact that there has been no final court judgment in the country of origin – after five years in the case of Arab Spring countries – or that there might be questions over impartiality of courts, should spur on EU countries to investigate if crimes have been committed. EU countries should not hide behind the fact that those crimes were not committed on their territories or that the specific crimes are not foreseen in their legal systems. Money laundering still happened and the EU countries allowed this to happen. Where there is a suspicion of embezzlement, money laundering or illicit enrichment EU countries should facilitate prosecution of those crimes in domestic courts.
Thirdly and as importantly, is that the freeze acts as a deterrent. At a time when EU member states are committing themselves to greater transparency in beneficial ownership, anti-money laundering initiatives and to ending secrecy jurisdictions, unfreezing the assets would send a signal that Europe is once again open for the business of receiving the proceeds of corruption. Let’s not forget that as much as places like the British Virgin Islands and Panama are the first places that come to mind for corrupt people to hide money, the top 50 countries in the 2015 Financial Secrecy Index include Luxembourg (6th), Germany (8th), the U.K. (15th – or first, if UK crown dependencies and Overseas Territories are included), Austria (24th), Malta (27th), France (31st), Cyprus (35th), Ireland (37th), Belgium (38th) and the Netherlands (41st).
The freezes put in place after the Arab Spring, as well as after the Ukrainian revolution, are not things to be done lightly. Without a trial, these orders freeze money and property held by a person with no clear end in sight. However, when such large amounts are in play and when cases involve such high ranking officials, not to freeze the assets and not to keep these freezes in place until all options have been explored for returning them to their rightful owners, which after all are the people of the country of origin, is a much larger risk. It risks encouraging more assets to be stolen, more money to be hidden and a greater feeling of safety for corrupt officials that they will get away with their crimes. We cannot let that happen.
The decision on whether the assets will again be frozen is six months away in the cases of Egypt and Tunisia, but politicians, civil society and we, the people, need to start thinking already now. We need to think about what kind of Europe we have and what kind of Europe we want.
And if, like us, you want a Europe that says no to corruption, no to the theft of public money and no to being a continent where dictators can hide their money, we need to start fighting from today. Fighting for the asset freezes to be renewed, fighting for those who stole the money to be punished, and fighting for our continent to be built on clean money.