Frontline reports that after decades of legal maneuvering, lawyers acting on behalf of the people of Haiti have finally established a claim over a small part of the assets believed to have been stolen by the nation’s former president Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Between 1971 and 1986, Duvalier, his ex-wife Michelle Bennett Duvalier, and three people acting as agents are believed to have appropriated about $540M from the Haitian public treasury, most of it from relief money given to Haiti by international aid organizations and foreign governments. While extreme poverty strangled the island nation, with 90% of the population subsisting on less than $150 annually, the Duvaliers used the funds to finance a lavish life style that included a $1M yacht, a luxurious villa in France, and well-publicized shopping trips to Miami and New York.
Lawyers have recovered $6.5M frozen in one of Duvalier’s Swiss account, a small but symbolic amount that Pierre-Yves Morier, a lawyer at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in charge of asset return, calls “a victory in the fight against impunity and corruption.” “We need corrupt leaders to realize that they can’t get away with crimes,” says Marilyn Allien, Haiti’s representative for the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International in Port-au-Prince. “The return of these illicit assets demonstrates that despite the time lapsed, dictators continue to be responsible for their crimes and cannot benefit from their stolen assets.”
The efforts to return the money to Haiti started in 1986, shortly after Duvalier fled the country, with a request from the new Haitian government to Switzerland for legal assistance to track down any money Duvalier had stolen from public funds and hidden in Switzerland. They located $6.5 million in a suspicious Swiss bank account of the Liechtenstein-based Brouilly foundation, set up by Duvalier’s mother through a Panamanian company. It proved difficult, however, to establish that the money didn’t rightfully belong to the Duvaliers and the investigation came to a halt in 2002. In May 2008, the new Haitian government supplied evidence of a criminal investigation against former president Duvalier and the funds were scheduled for release to the government. The release of the funds has been delayed by an appeal from the Duvalier family, but lawyers believe it is only a matter of months before the funds are in the government’s control. The $6.5 million is designated to go to social and humanitarian projects, most likely to a hospital or a water treatment facility. “Making sure that the money helps the poorest of the poor is very important to us,” says Allien of Transparency International. “We want to see direct effects on the living conditions of the people who suffered rather than having it go to infrastructure projects with uncertain benefits.”
For more on the asset recovery efforts go to http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/bribe/2009/05/haiti-the-long-road-to-recovery.html
Photo is from Vintage Nic’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/93759346@N00/3453140391/ [Shopping trip: Haitian first lady Michele Duvalier aka “Madame President” at New York with bodyguards. Spent a reported $1.7 million in classy shops of New York, Paris and London. ]