Last Friday, popular protests over unemployment and corruption forced Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to resign after 23 years in power. A Tunisian prosecutor has opened an investigation into the overseas assets of Ben Ali and his family, much of which are widely believed to be the fruit of corruption and some of which the Tunisian government may try to recover. France, Switzerland and Germany have all announced the freezing of assets linked to the Ben Ali clan; the European Union is considering doing so.
But the US has made no such announcement and the issue of US support for Tunisian efforts to track and possibly recover these assets hasn’t, to my knowledge – and I’ve been searching for it and asking reporters and others about it – even been mentioned in the press. Shouldn’t the US also move to freeze any assets in the US linked to the Ben Ali clan and indicate its full support for Tunisian efforts to recover stolen assets?
On Wednesday, the Tunisian prosecutor’s office moved to investigate overseas bank accounts, real estate, and other assets held by Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other relatives, while Switzerland froze assets linked to Ben Ali and 40 people in his entourage. On Saturday, France announced that it was blocking “suspicious financial movements concerning Tunisian assets.” Germany has also announced moves to freeze the assets of Ben Ali’s family.
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But there has been no move reported by the US to freeze assets linked to the Ben Ali clan in the US, nor any move reported to support the investigation of assets linked to the Ben Ali clan. Indeed, there has been no mention of the role of the US in the press.
This is striking, because the US is a key center of the international financial system. Even if there are not substantial assets linked to the Ben Ali clan in the US, US cooperation in any investigation would be key.
On Friday – after reports that Ben Ali had fled Tunisia – President Obama issued a strong statement of support for the protesters. The statement said, in part: “I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold.”
Now, President Obama has the opportunity to give meaning to these words. Urge him to freeze assets in the US linked to the Ben Ali clan and to fully support efforts by Tunisia to recover wealth stolen from the Tunisian people by corrupt officials. You can add your voice here, where you can also find a picture taken outside the Tunisian embassy in Washington, with protesters calling on President Obama to “help freeze the assets of Ben Ali and his family” (Sam Husseini).