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Switzerland court releases ex-Congo leader Mobutu assets to heirs

[JURIST] The Swiss Federal Criminal Court [official website, in German] on Tuesday released the frozen assets [judgment, PDF; in German] of former Zaire leader Mobutu Sese Seko [profile]. The court ruled that the approximately 7.7 million Swiss francs stored in banks, which were said to have been gained illegally, will be returned to the late Mobutu's heirs. The funds were originally sought by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly Zaire under Mobutu's control, but the Swiss prosecutor's office decided that Mobutu's heirs should receive it because the statute of limitations had run on the DRC's claim. An appeal brought by Basel University criminologist Mark Pieth to keep the assets frozen [BBC report] was subsequently rejected. Pieth alleged that Mobutu's heirs were criminal suspects and thus should not receive the funds. The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs [official website, in German] opposed the ruling [Geneva Lunch report], calling for legal reform on the issue of illicit assets. DRC Information Minister Lambert Mende claimed that Switzerland did not make enough of an attempt to give the disputed funds back to the country [BBC report].

The Swiss Federal Council ordered the Department of Foreign Affairs in December to draft a new law to address the confiscation and return of illicit assets of "politically exposed persons." Mobutu changed the Congo region's name to Zaire in 1971 after seizing power in 1965. His regime was overthrown in 1997 and he died a few months later while exiled in Morocco.

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