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Switzerland court orders return of assets to family of Haiti ex-president Duvalier

[JURIST] The Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland [official website, in French] announced [press release] Wednesday that $4.6 million seized from the bank accounts of former Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier [BBC backgrounder] must be returned to his family. The decision [judgment, in French], made just hours before the January 12 Haitian earthquake [JURIST news archive], overturned the ruling [JURIST report] of the Federal Criminal Court [official website, in French] that the money should go to aid groups working in Haiti. The lower court rejected the Duvalier family's original claim because it could not prove the money had come from legal means. In overruling the lower court's decision, the Supreme Court cited a statute of limitations on the crimes in the case, which had expired in 2001. The court wrote:

The recovery of assets of deposed dictators encounters various obstacles. States affected by such actions are confronted with particular problems: they may have ambiguous relationships with the deposed regime and often do not have available a proper, effective judiciary which is respectful of human rights, the prosecution of former officials, and the confiscation of their assets. In this context, the conditions imposed by [International Mutual Assistance on Criminal Matters] appear too stringent for these cases. The length of procedures, the difficulties of proof may be - as here - insurmountable obstacles. It is therefore the legislator's responsibility to make the necessary cuts and adjustments to reflect the specifics of these procedures.

According to the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs [official website], the government has issued an emergency decree to keep the assets frozen until a law can be passed allowing the money to be returned to Haiti.

Duvalier, also known as "Baby Doc," is the son of former Haitian leader Francois Duvalier, or "Papa Doc," whom he succeeded as leader [BBC report] in 1971. Following a tumultuous reign, which included accusations of thousands of murders by his regime [HRW report], Duvalier fled Haiti in 1986, and has since resided in France. In 2007, current Haitian leader Rene Preval expressed a renewed commitment to bring Duvalier to justice [JURIST report], despite Duvalier's pleas for forgiveness [Guardian report].

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