GENEVA (Reuters) - Growing up in Africa, he used to hunt buffalo, a passion that still serves Geneva-based lawyer Enrico Monfrini well. His dogged pursuit of ill-gotten assets has made him the scourge of many of the world’s dictators and kleptocrats.
An affable man with a sharp wit and a ready smile, the 67-year-old blends easily into a city of sprucely-dressed asset managers, bankers and lawyers, though his chosen calling would likely surprise many of them.
Working from an austere legal practice in central Geneva which belies its global reach, Monfrini has made his mark as a bounty hunter. In light of the Arab Spring, the available bounty may just have got a whole lot bigger.
Monfrini told Reuters in an interview he was already working on finding the assets of Tunisia’s former ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali: “We’re on a good track for finding some of the money.”
Tunisian justice minister Nourredine Bouheiri said this week Ben Ali and his entourage were believed to have stashed billions of dollars in accounts around the world.
Since the start of the Arab Spring, Switzerland, the United States, Britain and others, have frozen several billion dollars belonging to regional strongmen and former leaders.
Like Irving Picard, the lawyer seeking fraudster Bernard Madoff’s hidden assets, Monfrini is officially appointed to track down assets seized by former dictators like Haiti’s Babydoc Duvalier and their cronies.
While Monfrini is watching developments in Libya, Syria and elsewhere, his firm Monfrini Crettol Partners refrains from working for governments whose legitimacy is in doubt and where corruption may still be widespread.
“It’s impossible to do a proper job when mandated by people who could also have a hand in the till,” he said.
The Swiss lawyer spent much of his youth in Africa and professes a great love for the continent and its people. He preferred passing his time with the local farmers and villagers to the cocktail party circuit favored by his peers.
While his chosen profession was farming, Monfrini ceded to his father’s wishes and studied law. After graduating from Lausanne University, he practiced law in Geneva, specializing in areas including international taxation and white collar crime.
His first assignment pursuing dictator assets began in 1999 after a late night meeting in Geneva with a Nigerian government security adviser, who persuaded him to help track down the loot of the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and his officials.
To date, Monfrini said he had managed to locate some $2 billion of Abacha’s assets, of which $1.3 billion had so far been returned to Nigeria.
But identifying dictator assets is only part of what Monfrini does. Much more time consuming and frustrating is the effort to get international co-operation to seize assets and return them to the populations from which they have been stolen.
“The UK took five or six years to grant assistance on Abacha. They kept coming back to us with useless information, and France never gave us one document,” said Monfrini.
Monfrini said Liechtenstein banks hold 176 million euros ($221 million) that Abacha salted away in three different accounts despite a final court ruling to return the money to Nigeria in March that followed a 12-year struggle.
“They don’t really know how to enforce (the ruling) and they are not in a rush to do so,” said Monfrini.
Liechtenstein senior prosecutor Robert Wallner confirmed the final judgment and said the money is currently frozen while various legal questions are resolved.
As part of the Abacha investigations, Monfrini went to Luxembourg to track down some $30 million he believed to be stashed in the Grand Duchy. He unearthed $650 million.
Of that money, he said, $400 million remains in Luxembourg today, with no mechanism or law that can be applied to assets that were in the country before 2000.
A spokesman for Luxembourg’s financial regulator said he was unable to confirm how much Abacha money was still held there.
Monfrini said a July hearing in Switzerland will determine if he can seize the money, as Swiss law allows the worldwide seizure of assets of criminal groups if they have operated in Switzerland.
The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) entered into force in December 2005 and pushed signatory nations to set up legal frameworks identifying and outlawing corruption, and guidelines for international cooperation and asset recovery.
The main driver behind the convention was the Abacha case. But while UNCAC is a great theoretical tool, countries can’t be made to comply with requests under the framework, Monfrini said.
“It also takes a lot of time to go through due process and this works less well with very wealthy criminals who can afford hundreds of lawyers to block or delay government actions.”
Binding international rules and greater transparency could go some way to resolving the impasse, Monfrini added.
“Countries will realize UNCAC is not enough, that more compulsory measures are needed,” he said.
“We need easier terms of restitution for ill-gotten assets, and more international monitoring by third party institutions.”
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Reporting by Martin de Sa'Pinto