FBI Opens Preliminary Probe of Ousted Tunisian Leader’s Assets
By Mary Jacoby | February 8, 2022 7:20 pm

The Justice Department’s new anti-kleptocrat squad is reportedly looking at whether U.S. criminal investigators can assist in recovering assets stolen from Tunisia by ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is exploring whether the former Tunisian leader has assets in the U.S. or used U.S. financial institutions to transfer illicit funds, which would bring the matter under U.S. jurisdiction, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The preliminary investigation is being overseen by prosecutors in the Justice Departments’ Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section, part of the Criminal Division in Washington. The section has authorization to hire five lawyers devoted to finding and returning illicit assets taken out of countries by “high-level” foreign officials, part of a Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative announced by Attorney General Eric Holder in a speech in Uganda last July.

The FBI likewise has put more agents on the job by building on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement anti-corruption efforts and a team in the FBI’s Washington Field Office.

“We are going to bring cases against the assets of those around the world who have stolen from their citizenry and have taken money that obviously belongs to their country,” Criminal Division chief Lanny Breuer told the newspaper. “Those people are the embodiment, in some ways, of what’s wrong in these countries.” Breuer did not comment to the paper specifically about the Tunisia case.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14 after a popular revolt. Tunisia has accused him of taking money out of the country illegally and issued a warrant for his arrest. The European Union and Switzerland have already moved to freeze assets owned by Ben Ali, his wife and other relatives.

The asset forfeiture section at Justice is headed by former senior counsel to the Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Shasky Calvery, who helped formulate department anti-corruption policy.

Asset recovery is a growing international field, with governments and multi-lateral organizations like the World Bank increasingly seeing it as a way to stop corruption.

The Bank estimates that between $20 and $40 billion is stolen from public coffers each year and that only about $5 billion has been recovered to date. The Bank recently published a handbook for international prosecutors attempting to navigate complicated legal and diplomatic waters to take back assets.

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