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Friday, 1 January 2010

Swiss judge sets precedent in global graft fight

Action by a Swiss judge to order the confiscation of bank accounts held in countries outsideSwitzerland set a legal precedent that will help in the international fight against corruption, legal experts said.

Yves Aeschliman, a magistrate in Geneva, found Abba Abacha, son of Sani Abacha, the late Nigerian dictator, guilty of graft, sentenced him to a suspended prison term and ordered confiscation of $350m in funds held in Luxembourg and the Bahamas. The funds had already been frozen in the course of the investigation.

The Geneva justice office said on Friday the 41-year old Mr Abacha, who was arrested in 2005, had been found guilty "of participation in a criminal organisation". Enrico Monfrini, a Geneva lawyer who acts for the Nigerian government, said the demand for seizure of funds outside Switzerland was a legal first for the country. The Swiss government has already handed over to the Nigerian authorities about $700m that the Abacha family stashed away in Swiss bank accounts.

General Abacha is estimated to have plundered Nigeria's public coffers to the tune of some $2.2bn between 1993 and his death in 1998. A year later the new Nigerian government asked the Swiss to open an investigation.

In the same judgment, Mr Aeschlimann also fined an unnamed Monaco-based financier for helping the Abacha clan hide its gains and ordered him to pay SFr10m ($9.8, €6.6, £6m), equivalent to the illegal commissions he received, to the canton of Geneva.

The move marks a further step in international efforts to tackle theft by corrupt rulers by going after intermediaries as well as principals. Another financier accused of helping Gen Abacha to launder cash through Jersey has been arrested in the UK and is expected to stand trial.

Under Geneva's penal code, defendants have two weeks to object to the sentence handed down by an investigating judge and ask for a full court hearing, which could result in a much heavier sentence. Mr. Abacha's lawyers had no comment on Friday when asked if he would lodge an objection.

Despite its reputation as a home for illicit cash, Switzerland has recently been in the vanguard of international moves to track down and repay funds siphoned off by corrupt officials.

In the past 20 years it has returned millions of dollars to countries ranging from Peru to the Philippines

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