Nigeria says Liechtenstein making excuses to keep Abacha loot

LAGOS Mon Oct 14, 2013 1:04pm EDT

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LAGOS (Reuters) - Nigeria accused Liechtenstein of using legal challenges as a pretext to cling on to 185 million euros ($250 million) stolen by former military dictator Sani Abacha who died 14 years ago.

Nigeria has been fighting to recover the money for years, but companies linked to the Abacha family keep going to court to prevent the funds being repatriated, Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said.

A Liechtenstein government spokesman said the country was making efforts to return the money but a complaint in the European Court of Human Rights brought by companies affected was still pending.

"We feel that the Liechtenstein people have been stalling for 14 years," Okonjo-Iweala told Reuters.

"They are just looking for excuses and I think this is where international civil society should mount pressure on these people," she added. "The authorities are holding things back."

Abacha looted between $3 billion and $5 billion of public money during his five years ruling Africa's top oil producer from 1993-1998, Transparency International says.

A Liechtenstein court ordered the Abacha money confiscated in 2012, but companies linked to his family have mounted a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights and Liechtenstein fears being liable for the money should they win.

"We're asking: why have they been keeping our money all this time? Fronting companies for Abacha family are trying to delay things and Liechtenstein are hiding behind that," Okonjo-Iweala said. "Somebody's making money off it."

BANKING SECRECY

The Liechtenstein spokesman said one of the reasons the cases have dragged on for so long is that Nigeria refused the examination of witnesses in its courts as part of the procedure.

Liechtenstein, like neighbor Switzerland, is seen as an attractive destination for wealth, partly because banking secrecy laws can help keep it away from prying eyes.

Nigeria has recovered around $1.3 billion of Abacha's money so far from various European jurisdictions - more than a third of it from Switzerland.

"Switzerland has actually been quite good. They returned $500 million. But there's still money lying in other parts of Europe," Okonjo-Iweala said.

Other places where Abacha held money include France, Britain and offshore centers in the British isles like Jersey.

Nigeria has appointed World Bank consultants to oversee the money and ensure it is properly spent, Okonjo-Iweala said.

The Liechtenstein spokesman said that, despite the court case, authorities were "looking at the possibility of returning money ahead of schedule whilst still covering liability risks."

The role of Western banks in aiding African corruption was highlighted during the trial of James Ibori, ex-governor of Nigeria's oil-producing Delta state last year.

Ibori and his mistress were convicted in a trial that showed they had laundered millions of pounds (dollars) through accounts they held at several British banks.

($1 = 0.7373 euros)

(Additional reporting by Alice Baghdjian in Zurich; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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